You can’t deny it. Despite a few bright spots last year, the East African Project is in trouble.
In Arusha, we have an East African Community (EAC) secretariat grappling with one of its most difficult funding crises. At the same time, though, there is a widespread view that the current leadership of the secretariat is probably its most unimaginative.
Relations between EAC members are also probably at their most lukewarm. Uganda and Rwanda in recent months, have been having a tiff in which they have accused one another of mistreating each other’s citizens. Kigali online media have also alleged that Kampala is supporting anti-President Paul Kagame dissidents.
Since violence erupted in Burundi over two years ago after President Pierre Nkurunziza pulled off a third term grab, it has been in an undeclared state of war with Rwanda.
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, doesn’t seem to like Kenya much. For now, we won’t say who is wrong or right. The whole thing is just a mess, really.
How did we get here? Since he nearly lost power in a coup, Nkurunziza has become hidebound. He has not set foot outside the country.
In Tanzania, apart from a few trips around his East African neighbourhood, Magufuli has given new meaning to “a homeboy,” shunning even African Union meetings.
Though leaders like Kagame are still quite global, doing the World Economic Forum in Davos, speaking at universities and innovation events, overall East African chiefs are less dreamy and have become more inward in their pursuits.
One result is that their collective vision for the region has actually shrunk, helped along by the dramatic failure of new member South Sudan, whose intractable and incredibly brutal conflict is depressing and dragging everyone’s spirit down.
Today, it is possible to ask a question that was nearly unthinkable just in 2013: “Which is the BIG IDEA for which the EAC exists?”
Not too long ago, Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni was speaking of an East African political federation. The EAC cobbled together a “fasttrack committee” to explore a path to speedier political federation. To get a sense of how far back we have moved, today it sounds crazy that we were ever at that point.
In his New Year message, Museveni showered rare praise on media — specifically the quasi-state owned New Vision newspaper. In its Christmas edition, the paper reproduced an edition of Uganda Argus from way back:
“I will never forget that issue…”, Museveni said. “I was in S3 at Ntare but already very much involved in politics. I had never been so happy nor have I been so happy since as I was happy on that day and for some months afterwards.
The headlines on the front page of the paper, with the pictures of Mzee Kenyatta, Mwalimu Nyerere and Mzee Obote, shouted: ‘Federation This Year’, ‘Top-level talks end in Nairobi…’
That happiest day of the leading champion of East African federation was June 6, 1963. It was telling that though he has been president for 32 years now, and despite his best efforts, Museveni cannot create for himself the joy about East Africa that Kenyatta, Obote, and Nyerere gave him 53 years ago.
Think for a moment, how the ordinary East Africanists must feel.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapaedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3