|The days when the East African Legislative Assembly was just a talking shop are numbered, thanks to the enthusiasm of its 45 new members.
|Ms Caroline Musasia, the public relations officer of the East Africa Community Ministry, arranges the flags of the EAC member states ahead of a news conference in Nairobi recently. MPs from the region are asking their respective countries to speed up regional integration. Photo/FILE
The tough-talking regional law makers are determined to turn the EALA around by making it more relevant to the 120 million people living in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.
Their quest to revamp the assembly is part of the larger vision of turning East Africa into a political federation by 2012.
The Assembly has nine elected members from each country, and nine ex-officio members who are Cabinet ministers and officials from the secretariat.
Raring to go
Although raring to grow into a formidable alliance of nations, the region failed one of its most recent acid tests — the post-election political crisis in Kenya in which more than 1,200 were killed and 350,000 others displaced from their homes over the disputed presidential election results.
The community was outdone by the African Union and the UN which quickly stepped in to find ways to end the violence and seek peace.
The efforts of the two bodies culminated in the signing of the National Accord on February 28.
Efforts by Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni did not bear fruit amid claims that Ugandan soldiers had helped Kenyan police to quell the violence near the common border.
Now, the members want to put their House in order and make it more pro-active.
The unrest in Kenya did not just lead to violence; it also adversely affected Kenya’s economy and that of other countries in the region, including Uganda where the price of petroleum products shot up because supplies could not reach that country.
Rwanda too was adversely affected. Indeed, President Paul Kagame visited Dar-es-Salaam with a view to exploring an alternative route through which his country could import goods.
Also affected were Burundi and Southern Sudan, after rail and road transport was partially paralysed by demonstrators who uprooted a section of the line in Nairobi while others barricaded roads in the Rift Valley.
About 1,000 Kenyans fled to Uganda at the height of the unrest in January and February. However, many have since returned after the restoration of peace.
With the benefit of hindsight, EALA members who are meeting in Nairobi for the next fortnight, have also vowed to promote people-friendly laws and policies to ensure that the goals of the community are realised within the agreed time.
Among these goals are the speeding up the formation of the East African Common Market by 2010 and a Monetary Union by 2012, followed closely by a political federation.
Height of unrest
The original EAC states (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) signed the EAC Treaty in November 1999. Rwanda and Burundi have since come on board.
Their 18 members to EALA were sworn-in at a brief ceremony in Nairobi presided by the Speaker of the Kenya National Assembly, Mr Kenneth Marende, and his counterparts from Rwanda and Burundi, Mr Piere Ntanyohanyuma and Alfred Mukenzantura.
EALA is one of the organs of the East African Community. The others are the East African Court of Justice, East African Community Civil Aviation Safety Oversight Agency and the East African Development Bank. The Customs Union is still pending.
Says Fortunatus Masha of Tanzania on the progress of the Community: “We must all take a common stand and support the different stages of the integration process as we move in phases. EALA members are being asked daily by our constituents what we are doing in Arusha. We must embrace the media in those efforts, I believe we can rise to the occasion.”
But Ms Dorah Byamukama, a Ugandan MP, is concerned that the spirit of the EAC is not being embraced by all member states as originally envisioned.
She said she was shocked to see the 18 new EALA members from Rwanda and Burundi blocked at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, yet their countries are members of the trading block.
Ms Byamukama called on her colleagues to speed up issuance of the East African passport to all partner states as a sign of the political goodwill and to avoid such embarrassing incidents.
She supported President Museveni address, at the last heads of states summit in February in Arusha.
The Ugandan leader had said: “Visions, which have a tendency to fly about like confetti wherever one turns today, are invariably conveyed in mere words; but bold visions, real visions need bold actions to match the words.”
On the political integration, Ms Lydia Mutende, also of Uganda, appealed to her colleagues to be at the forefront in building institutions that would strengthen democracy in partner states.
“So what is the role of EALA in upheavals like the one we witnessed in Kenya? If it happens in one country it could happen in another.
“The summit has given EALA the task of carrying out our mandate and we must rise to the occasion,” she said.
The same views were shared by Ms Safina Kwekwe Tsungu of Kenya. She said that as the partner states move closer towards a monetary union, the issues of peace, security and the role of the youth in development must be given priority.
“EAC must also rise to the occasion and promote capital markets in the partner states in addition to harmonising the respective labour laws to woo investors,” she said.
The mood of the members was best summarised by the chairman of the EAC council of minister, Mr Eriya Kategaya, who is the Ugandan deputy Prime Minister: “The EAC would no longer shy from promoting conflict resolutions measures in member states going through political crisis like Kenya went through.”
But are the people of East Africa enthusiastic about the regional alliance?
According to one poll, 75 per cent of Ugandans were enthusiastic about a political federation, compared to 66 per cent in Kenya and 24 per cent of Tanzanians.