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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Suddenly, East Africans Don't Seem to Like Each Other Much by Charles Onyango-Obbo

The public consultations on the East African Federation have produced some surprising results: The ordinary people's lack of enthusiasm and, in some cases, hostility to the idea in Kenya and Uganda go far deeper than EA-optimists had imagined.

Tanzanians have always been cautious. However, in Kenya and Uganda, there has clearly been a loss of support for the East African project.

What could have changed? One of the reasons for the resistance to the East African project in Uganda, as in Tanzania, was that they felt cheated by Kenya when East African Community I collapsed. Kenya, they allege, kept the crown jewels like East African Airways.

There was also the view that Kenya was more economically advanced, and therefore a common market would be to its advantage. These concerns however were addressed in the new treaty.

Kenya had fewer problems. There were worries about cheaper Ugandan agricultural goods, and the "import of political instability" from its western neighbour, but they didn't seem to be overarching.

It should be remembered that when the Treaty was signed, President Yoweri Museveni was an inspirational figure for Kenyans and still almost idolised at home. Having suffered long and hard under the Daniel arap Moi regime, they perhaps saw in him a liberator.

Kenyans seem to have struggled more than Ugandans to come to terms with Museveni's conversion into a typical African strongman. Quite a few Kenyans could hardly believe reports in the media in 2005 that the Museveni government had paid parliamentarians to remove presidential term limits in the constitution, effectively turning him into president for life.

That and the controversial February 2006 election became the most commented-on topic for a long time in the opinion pages of the Standard and Daily Nation.

A growing Kenyan attitude was evident a month ago, when Ugandan commandos (for the second time) laid siege to the High Court and abducted suspected rebels who had been granted bail. A long-term Museveni supporter called me and said simply; "Is this the man who wants to be East Africa's first president? He should forget it." And she hung up.

Ten years ago, Uganda was still being touted, and rightly so, as the "African economic success story." National confidence was high, and we believed that we were poised to rule East and Central Africa. Not many people foresaw the reversals that followed instead.

And in both Tanzania and Uganda, even fewer still imagined that Kanu would be defeated in 2002, and the changes that would follow in Kenya thereafter.

Under Moi, Kenya's era seemed over and it looked beatable from Kampala and Dar es Salaam. Though Kenya's politics remains nearly hopelessly dysfunctional, the economic turnaround has been close to dramatic.

The gap between Kenya and its EAC partners is probably much wider now than at the signing of the treaty. A recent column in the state-owned Sunday Vision newspaper of Kampala reflected the new anxiety on this issue when it said that Uganda "had become a Kenyan colony." The article was widely circulated on Ugandan blogs, where most people agreed with its sentiments.

Despite all this, the East African idea would have been fired up if there were a leader in the EAC who captured the region's imagination. Unfortunately, there is none. President Jakaya Kikwete has not shown his hand enough, and East Africans don't quite what he stands for. President Museveni is well known, but is probably damaged goods. President Mwai Kibaki is thought to be too aloof. In any event, given his age, he can't be in politics much longer.

President Paul Kagame attracts interest, and his record against corruption is quite impressive. However, he is too new in the EAC, and still has to convince many East Africans about his democratic credentials. And there is Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza. Pierre who?

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group's managing editor for convergence and new products. This article appears in The East African.

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

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