Useful lessons for EAC from Brexit

Thursday June 30 2016

President Uhuru Kenyatta joins other Heads of State from the East African Community for the 17th Ordinary EAC Summit Arusha Tanzania on March 2, 2016. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

President Uhuru Kenyatta (second left) joins other Heads of State from the East African Community for the 17th Ordinary EAC Summit Arusha Tanzania on March 2, 2016. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Most bookmakers and opinion pollsters got their predictions horribly wrong on the Brexit referendum.

They did not anticipate the role Britain’s political history would play in the vote.

Throughout history, the British have shown a deep aversion to big government.

They gave the world the idea of separation of powers as we know it and were the first to argue for free international trade rather than the prevalent mercantilism at the time.

Therefore, it would have been difficult to expect British voters to bind themselves to a bureaucracy like the EU.

It is not yet clear what the Brexit portends for the global economy, but a few fundamental questions need answers.

Those in support of Brexit faced accusations of being inward looking and afraid of globalisation.

An initial analysis does seem to validate this point: those above the age of 45 overwhelming voted to exit the European Union, while younger voters, “global citizens”, voted to remain.

Sad as it is, the Brexit debated degenerated into arguments around immigration.

The most important argument — the economic one — was either pushed to the periphery or so marred by misrepresentation of information that real concerns lost precedence in the face of more emotive issues.

Was the Brexit a vote against globalisation? Hardly, as globalisation is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, the gradual movement of global society into a cultural common.

However, it was a vote against the globalisation of government, or more aptly, the globalisation of transnational bureaucratic structures.

Contrary to prevalent opinion, the Brexit voters did not opt out of the EU cultural project; they wanted out of the European “political project” and were not interested in being part of the European supra-state.


What lessons does Brexit provide for integration in the East Africa Community or the wider continent?

From the very beginning, it is worth noting that the kind of integration that happens within the African continent is very different from European integration.

In Africa, most of the integration happens at the level of the state.

In the EAC, for example, member countries, led by their heads of state, come up with the integration agenda and then delegate the role of structuring the technical details to their technocrats.

These technocrats then design the technical processes that formalise integration. This kind of integration is a highly technical one.

From the very beginning, no attempts have been made to integrate the people.

East Africans have very different political cultures and do not identify with a common East African aspiration, if indeed such an aspiration exists.

In the EAC, the stated goal of integration is the formation of an “East African federated state”. It ought not to be.

The biggest challenge for integration in East Africa is not the formation of an East Africa state, but integrating the people of East Africa to believe in a set of values that would bind the community together.

The promotion of ideas such as free movement of people and free trade and a similar understanding of democratic practice should be the priority before we even begin considering an EU-type political project.

The other rather surprising myth is that the European Union supports free trade and that it is a good thing for the African continent.

While the EU might facilitate free trade in the reduction of tariffs, any potential gain on this front is withered by bureaucratic non-tariff barriers to trade.

The 640-page EAC-EU Economic Partnership Agreement is a detailed bureaucratic affront to free trade.

Besides, the EU’s subsidies to its agricultural sector have not helped Africa’s development cause.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, young Africans, especially on social media, were of the opinion that the Britons made a terrible mistake. Their ire was almost palpable.

Ironically, I have not seen the same young Africans push for the existence of an African ideal.

It is rather surprisingly that they were bemoaning the loss of ideals and values that they have never enjoyed.

For African integration to make sense, the goals need to move from the creation of large political states to the much more modest and subtle nurturing of a community of people who have a lot in common, at least culturally. 

Mr Njeru is programmes director, Eastern Africa Policy Centre. [email protected] Twitter: @AlexNdungu