Many corridors good for East Africa

By Joseph Rwagatare –

East Africa’s transport corridors have been in the news almost continuously for the last three years. As usually happens, the media created its own narrative to capture the current of events and maintain interest.

Again as is always the case, the narrative is built on an exaggerated idea of destructiveness even when what is actually happening is constructive. Don’t we humans love that – what in Kinyarwanda we call byacitse (crisis, real or imagined)?

First, it was the northern corridor that captured attention three years ago when the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya decided to inject some pace into the region’s integration process.

They identified areas where they could act together and move faster, and started something they called the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP). To show their commitment and signal to their respective officials the urgency of the undertaking, they chose to meet every three months.

The media quickly latched on to the story and, as is its wont, coined a catchy term – Coalition of the Willing (CoW) to describe the efforts of the three countries. But a story in itself, however good, is never attractive enough. It has to be juicy and that often means it must contain political intrigue and conspiracy, and the potential to break up things.

And so in this juicy sense, the CoW or more formally the NCIP was created to isolate Tanzania whose leadership at the time was widely perceived to be less enthusiastic about the East African integration project. I wonder what sin Burundi had committed.

Perhaps not knowing its own mind? Anyway, a two-track East Africa was touted, the sprinters in the fast lane and the laggards in the other, with the possibility that the latter could drop from the race altogether. In the meantime a new partner with immense potential, but very excitable and volatile, was being courted to join the group in the fast lane.

That was the narrative for a while. Then several factors changed it.

One had to do with the internal dynamics within the NCIP. The presidents have kept to their promised schedule of meetings (and presumably to their commitment) except where national exigencies like elections have caused some delay. Government officials don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency, though. Whether this is due to bureaucratic inertia or a reading of the mood of their leaders, it is hard to tell.

Still, some progress has been made in such areas as a single tourist visa, one network area (for mobile telephone services), and use of national identity cards as travel documents within the three countries.

On the more massive infrastructure projects, the story is different and that is where those see destruction when they wish to are beginning to see cracks in the so-called CoW.

One of these was the oil pipeline from Uganda’s oilfields along Lake Albert through Kenya’s newly found oil wells in the north of the country to the Kenyan coast the two countries had agreed to jointly build. A few months ago that changed when Uganda abandoned that route in favour of one through Tanzania to the port of Tanga.

Another was the Mombasa-Nairobi-Kampala-Kigali Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). Things were going well until some people discovered the necessity for an additional line. In Kampala, officials were seduced by the potential of a new line to Juba in South Sudan, which meant that the western line to Kigali would be put on hold for an unknown period.

The second reason for the change of narrative came from the election of a new president in Tanzania with a more East African outlook and a corridor through his country to promote. Rwanda has found an alternative, and shorter, railway line to the sea via the Central Corridor.

And so the narrative has changed again. It is byacitse once more, but this time it is Kenya in danger of being isolated. Uganda’s decision to route its oil through Tanzania and Rwanda’s interest in the Central Corridor railway line are being presented as giving Kenya the cold shoulder and could even break up the so-called CoW.

This is another headline catching simplification of a more complex situation. What is happening in East Africa is actually a good thing. It reflects a number of positive happenings here.

It shows that East Africans are not making random or romantic choices. Their choices are more pragmatic, driven by economic realities and national interests. For this reason the results are likely to be more sustainable.

The competition is also good for business and growth in the region. The more competitive offers attract more business.

The changes also reflect a change in the strength of East Africa’s economies. While Kenya remains the strongest economy, it is facing competition. It can no longer exercise the pull it used to and cannot expect others to defer to it. They are also growing. That, too, is good for the region.

Finally East Africa is coming together again. More infrastructure linkages are good for business and travel. The Northern Corridor will continue to grow as will the Central. Kenya will soon get to work on the Lamu port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor further north. These main arteries will have interconnecting branches, which means we will be more connected and interdependent and therefore more integrated. Regional trade will grow.

And so, rather than being a snub to whoever, the recent moves should be seen as a boon for the region.

Source: The New Times

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