East African Community (EAC), the regional block consisting of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi is facing a unity crisis. People often forget the important role that EAC unity has played in ensuring regional stability and peace, which has enabled EAC economies to pursue economic development and cooperation through various regional trade agreements.As a result, most intra-EAC trade is at zero percent and a significant portion of EAC trade within the five East African countries is also already at zero. People can also travel visa free to each other’s countries. EAC is the second-largest regional organisation in Africa with 145 million people, growing at an average of around 5.5 percent.Intra-EAC trade accounts for 25 percent of trade and investment, and intra-East Africa trade accounts for two-thirds, while intra-EAC tourism accounts for 23 percent and intra-East EAC tourism accounts for two-thirds of tourist travel with Ugandans being the most regular travellers in East African.While EAC economic integration has been criticised as being too slow and not ambitious enough, it is at least still an ongoing process compared to what is not happening in other regional agreements like ECOWAS in West Africa or SADC in Southern Africa. Furthermore, international commitments including under the EAC have shaped and continue to influence national reform programs and in the growing antiglobalisation and anti-elite world, there have at least been no major reversals.Therefore, the very Kenyan issue of Economic Partnership Agreement, am calling it Kenyan because none of the other members of EAC need it to survive, must not be used to erode the gains made so far in the region. Kenyan government cannot take this unity for granted if EAC does not resolve the challenges it faces as it approaches 20 years of existence. There are the changes and innovations needed going forward for EAC.The challenges are first the slow recovery in the regional economy, and especially important for EAC is the impact of the slowdown and structural changes in global economies in China, Europe and USA. The increased antiglobalisation, anti-immigration and anti-elite sentiments, peaking with election of Donald Trump, and the political stance adopted across the globe and evident in EAC with regard to issue of Economic Partnership Agreement.In turn these tendencies have affected the appetite for bold reforms and international cooperation on various issues that need international collective action such as climate change, trade policy and international investment. Also, the disruptive technologies that on the one hand increase efficiency and inclusiveness can lead to a loss of jobs and impact traditional industries in the region.EAC’s increased urbanisation and demographic shifts is also a challenge that need to be addressed.There is Kenya’s ageing population on the one hand, and on the other hand a demographic bonus in the rest of EAC and Uganda, Tanzania of young productive people who will need jobs.
To remain relevant, EAC must be able to speed up and widen the scope of regional economic integration, including addressing technological disruptions and the freer flow of people that will be beneficial to all members. At the same time it must be able to address the anti-openness movement with concerns rooted in the perceived lack of spread of the benefits of economic integration between and within countries.Various studies whose reports I have read in EAC show that more than half of businesses have heard of the EAC. The utilisation rate of EAC trade agreements is only around 20 percent and only a small percentage of small and medium enterprises participate in regional trade.Young people in EAC probably also do not have any idea about the East African Community, even though they enjoy the outcomes. A recent survey of millennials in EAC found that millennials saw their future in globalisation and the continued importance of the EAC, but did not trust that the elites or politicians could deliver the right kind of globalisation for them of quality growth including health and environment being important and inclusiveness.Therefore, change is needed not just in what EAC should do, but also in the way EAC operates and communicates. Political leaders need to be in tune with the needs of the people, including of youth, and to be able to truly discuss these challenges openly at EAC summits. At the same time to be truly people-oriented and inclusive as the vision of the EAC states, the process must be made open, inclusive and participatory from the beginning not at the end of the process of shaping the EAC.Innovations are also needed to make the process more open and to have more transparent evaluations of impacts. One example is the EAC Scorecard, which could be made more transparent or have an independent evaluation.Innovation through the role of technology in terms of structural changes that need to happen, the way to communicate messages as a means for inclusiveness and delivering digital dividends so that the benefits of economic integration are more widely spread are also key. For innovation and creativity to thrive, there has to be supporting physical connectivity, soft infrastructure of talent, a conducive innovation climate and access to networks, finance and industry.In turn this will allow businesses to be integrated wholly in EAC. The outsourcing of many services and tasks to a wide range of clusters all over EAC could be a new method. An innovative approach is also needed to manage disruptive technologies so that there is net job creation and the creation of new industries and opportunities.These changes and innovations are just a glimpse of what needs to be done. It is the beginning of a serious conversation that must happen from political leaders down. Let people not lament the loss of EAC unity when it is too late or when it is gone just because Kenya want to protect its economic benefits at the expense of bloc. My view is that those technocrats in Arusha must get going on the changes and innovations that will ensure EAC unity or otherwise East Africans will be living in an unthinkable world without EAC.