Op-Ed: Why it matters that regional integration has taken a back seat in Kenya’s election

Sekou Toure Otondi | University of Nairobi

As Kenya’s general election beckons the race has effectively narrowed down to two horses. Either, opposition leader Raila Odinga , or incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta will be Kenya’s president after August 8.

The bid for State House has attracted eight presidential contenders in total. But in recent weeks the focus has shifted to Odinga’s National Super Alliance and Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party, both of which have recently unveiled their manifestos.

While the manifestos look good on paper, depending on one’s political leaning, they are unlikely to have a significant impact on how Kenyans will cast their votes. The majority of the electorate have already decided on their preferred candidate. Most will vote on the basis of their tribal affiliations. The latest polling by Infotrak shows that only 8% of Kenyans are undecided on which presidential aspirant to vote for.

Despite the fact that party manifestos will not shift voting patterns, they do provide a policy snapshot of what the parties would prioritise were they to form the next government.

The fact that neither the Jubilee Party nor the National Super Alliance manifesto takes much account of relations between Kenya and its peers in the East African Community, is noteworthy. And disturbing.

A study of the two manifestos shows that neither has a coherent plan for regional integration. This should concern Kenyans, as well as the country’s neighbours.

Relations between Kenya and its neighbours aren’t as they could be. A few months ago cabinet secretary for foreign affairs Amina Mohamed accused Kenya’s neighbours of not backing her candidature for the chairmanship of the African Union commission. Uganda openly disputed the claims, which only served to bring more attention to the suspicions.

More concerning are the increasingly unpredictable relations between Kenya and Tanzania. Even as the campaign heats up a diplomatic row is raging between the two countries.

Tanzania and Kenya are key actors in the EAC integration process. According to the 2016 Kenya economic report, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda account for the largest intra-trade volumes within the EAC sub-region.

Therefore, Tanzania’s protectionist tendencies, which include both tariff and non-tariff barriers, not only threaten free trade within the community, but also encourage other states to place their own national interests before those of the union.

Tanzania’s overt nationalism is likely to stymie the integration process. Thus the need for Kenya and Tanzania to quietly resolve their differences before they escalate into an open diplomatic row.

Fractious regional relations

There have long been cracks in East Africa’s fledgling union.

Since the 2013 general election that ushered in the Jubilee administration, Kenya’s engagement in the community has become increasingly low key. The result was the formation of an informal coalition of the willing, which included Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. It’s goal was the fast-tracking of regional integration through large scale regional infrastructure projects. These countries came together in reaction to Tanzania’s lukewarm approach to community affairs. At the time the informal coalition was formed, Tanzania was under the leadership of President Jakaya Kikwete.

Following the election of President John Pombe Magufuli in 2015, Kenya’s engagement with Tanzania has slackened even further. The cold relations between the two countries is partially explained by the diplomatic charm offensive that Magufuli launched to restore Tanzania’s influence in the region. His efforts scuttled the coalition of the willing and sidelined Kenya within the bloc.

A potent and noxious mix of competing interests have aggravated the frosty relationship between Kenya and Tanzania. There is stiff competition between the two countries to host large scale regional projects. There have also been disagreements over trade deals.

The standoff is threatening the integration process because the other community members are finding that they have to align themselves with either Kenya or Tanzania. This is getting in the way of joint decision making.

A highlight of the competing views in the region surfaced during the signing of the European Union/East African Community economic partnership agreement when Kenya and Tanzania once again took opposing views.

Tanzania has always opposed the trade deal on the grounds that it was contrary to its national economic interest. Kenya’s view is that Tanzania wants to scuttle the economic progress of the east African bloc.

Tensions fuelled by elections

Differing points of view between political elites in the region have also contributed to dampened community relations. Whenever one of the member states goes into an election, other community leaders will align with either the opposition or the incumbent. These alignments are usually based on personal relationships rather than common ideology.

Forming alignments based on a shared ideology would indicate that the integration process was on course. More so because the East African Community’s ultimate objective is to form a political union and a shared ideology would go a long way to that end. But, instead of staking cross-border political support on ideology or regional policy frameworks, support continues to be pegged on personal relationships.

This is detrimental to the integration process. In 1977, the first East African Community suffered a similar fate when it collapsed under the burden of personal differences between leaders in the bloc.

Nevertheless, the political goodwill of individual elites in community governments cannot be gainsaid. Politicians will always be at the centre of the policy that governs the integration process.

It’s on this basis that I argue for the inclusion of more detailed East African Community-related policy in the manifestos of Kenya’s main political outfits. Whoever forms the next government needs to factor in the big matter of community integration.

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