Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

Events around the admission of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into the new East African Community (EAC) tell us one clear thing: East African regional integration is going to be one kind of experience for the State House elites and their cronies, and quite another experience entirely, for the ordinary citizens.

On the very day of the announcement, thousands of Congolese citizens fled to the Uganda border district of Kisoro to escape a new flare-up of fighting.

Between the 2nd and the 8th of April, they were caught in a cycle of fleeing and returning, only to flee again with their livestock and their bedding, as more fighting broke out.

The first two clashes were blamed on renewed activity by M23, an on-off rebel outfit that the DRC government accuses the government of Rwanda of backing, a charge Rwanda’s rulers have consistently denied, saying that any possible Rwandan armed action in the DRC would be in pursuit of another military outfit that grew out of the defeated forces of the previous genocidal Rwandan regime they deposed over 20 years ago.

On the day of the formal signing-in ceremony in Nairobi, more citizens fled again, with the fighting this time being blamed on the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) that are supposedly linked to the Islamic State.

On both occasions, it has been the Uganda armed forces entering the DRC—citing an invitation of its government—to confront the militants.

So we have the interesting situation of an organization inducting a new member who comes pre-loaded with an accusation and a complaint against an existing member. The new member is also subject to repeated armed visits from another member who has an outstanding debt to it as established by the United Nations, and sanctioned by the International Court of Justice.

Make no mistake, this is a very significant economic and geographic development. The DRC is actually the physical heart of Africa: it borders nine other countries, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Its sheer breadth places it in southern, eastern, central and even western Africa all at once. And of course, it is famously rich in terms of natural resources.

Just by adding this one country, the East African Community doubles its geographical size and increases its population by over 30 per cent to 314 million people.

As an echo of the four key things that African leaders have historically called for as the solutions to the African development challengefree movement of people as labour; free movement of trade goods; joint security initiatives; and integrated communication and infrastructure to support all these thingsit is a great prize, by any account.

The challenge of African reconstruction following the immense damage of the colonial conquest and occupation, which in itself came on the heels of the earlier three centuries of depopulation through enslavement, has been first and foremost a challenge of finding a method. A general consensus, historically and today, is that “Pan-Africanism” is the solution.

Back in 2018, I pointed out on these pages that there is not simply one way of joining Africans together, and even then, not every kind of joining Africans together meant Pan-Africanism was in the African’s interest. Pan-Africanism is not one thing: there are Pan-Africanisms.

There is the cultural, the state-based, the popular types, and the corporate.

The first basically means first doing away with the organizational logic of the current states, whether amalgamated or not, as it starting point.

The second could also be termed Nkrumahist after its best known advocate. It is completely premised on the notion of using these states as a primary building block of uniting the Africans into a new, modern identity and then propelling them rapidly towards industrialization and “development”.

The third means rejecting, of course, the colonial model, but also its offspring.  It is centred on the idea of bringing native knowledge (which is available free in the community) into the question of enhancing people’s lives through sustainable production, healthcare and teaching. It envisages interaction on a largely horizontal, community-to-community basis.

The fourth is the longest and best established. The 19th century European powers had already brought together vast areas of the continent into spaces ultimately answerable to one political and one economic authority. Many of the countries they founded started life as trading companies, and corporate profit-making has remained the essence of their utility to the West.

It has resulted in a two-fold enclosure. First, the indigenous nations were forcibly incorporated, in whole or in part, into the conquest units of the colonial order. Today, these very same units, masquerading as independent states, are being joined together as market units. There is little essential organisational difference between this model and the Nkrumahist one: bringing the Africans together under a new economic culture.

But between the four approachescultural, state-based, political and popularthere does not seem to have been much progress made beyond the attainment of political independence.

It is well known that one cannot serve two masters, yet the needs and demands of the ordinary African people are in direct conflict with the desires and intentions of Western corporations. So, the critical question is whether trade blocs such as the EAC are being built in opposition to those imposed strictures or in their favour.

This East African Community is not the same as the one that existed between 1967 and 1977. And even that one was not entirely fit for Pan-Africanist purpose. However, with the original East African Community, these were economic units oriented a little more to organized production, as opposed to extraction and plunder.

But as long as we are organized within the structures of the colonial units, remain in debt to the financial institutions of Western countries, and locked into the European Union trade treaties, then this integration will do the opposite of what we are being told.

The needs and demands of the ordinary African people are in direct conflict with the desires and intentions of Western corporations.

How does the new and expanded EAC address this legacy? Much practical and conceptual confusion has thrived, and at the centre of that web sits the National Resistance Movement regime in Kampala, woven around the person of President Yoweri Museveni.

Since Pan-Africanism could not decide what it was, President Museveni happily repurposed it for the benefit of Western power. Having been installed 35 years ago by a circle of Western corporations, he has developed a masterfully duplicitous confection of Pan-African, neo-Marxist and anti-imperialist ruminations suitably distorted to justify the very things those arguments were meant to fight.

Museveni has basically bolstered the 19th century Western corporate regional integrationist model, by disguising it as Nkrumahism (for whatever that in itself was worth).

What has been done is to create a hierarchy for plunder, in which everyone understands their place, and presumably gets paid accordingly. The Kenyan financial elites (easily the most substantial of the region) were already prepared and, just days after the Nairobi signing ceremony, announced an initial US$1.6 billion initiative into Congo’s mining, manufacturing and construction sectors.

As for the wananchi, this will make it cheaper and simpler for them to move as citizens of the widened free trade area, than as refugees in need of all manner of permits and processing from the host country and the United Nations.

In 1964, the United States congress used reports of  a partly fictional attack on its navy units in the waters near the Republic of North Vietnam to pass an Act “legalising” deeper US involvement in the then escalating Vietnamese civil war.

This “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” formalized the US’s attempted occupation of South Vietnam and destruction of North Vietnam, over the next decade. The Americans lost the war, but many American corporations got very rich out of it.

With its ADF shadow-boxing, Uganda has been “Tonkining” in the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades now.

Therefore, the inclusion now of the DRC into the new and expanded East African Community is simply a formalisation of that reality and a tightening of the Western corporations’ headlock around DRC wealth. It is also the completion of the lumpen-explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s dream of linking the Indian and Atlantic Oceans under one economy. It may also give Kampala the upper hand over Kigali in their private elite rivalry over the DRC, and could well lead to further border dramas.

With better intra-continental communications (road, rail, air and electronic) no doubt some of our ordinary people will be able to use their celebrated “resilience” and “ingenuity” to see opportunities in these changes and make a new living from them. However, there are no guarantees that the larger free trade area will not simply become a bigger playground for the usual predatory economic forces from outside the continent.

With the original East African Community, these were economic units oriented a little more to organized production, as opposed to extraction and plunder.

If the state foundations remain the same, it is unclear how merging seven of the same kinds of indebted, exploited economies governed by leaders who have difficulties organising fair elections (so as to determine what their people actually want) can bring better outcomes than we have already lived through. And a single EAC-wide border will still be a colonially-defined border.

Certainly there will be a greater aggregation of wealth and more elite business opportunities. But for as long as the historical trade strictures are not addressed, this will not alter the central dynamic of the crisis of African trade and development.

The one window of some kind of hope is if the leaders make good on their statements about using the greater scale of the economic bloc to demand better terms of trade globally. If American and the wider Western-European Union economic dominance shrinks (not least through an escalation of their ongoing war with Russia in Ukraine), then perhaps those controlling resource-rich trading blocs such as the EAC become more general brokers of those resources on the world stage.

Either way, the expanded Community is likely to be a continuation of the already damaging experience suffered by the ordinary people, with the elites controlling the various capitals squabbling over the leftovers thrown them by the Western corporations that are behind the wealth extraction that is fuelling the endless conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

In short, this is likely to be, and to remain, an integration of economic territories, not of values or cultures. It is the lack of respect for the indigeneity of the inmates, now relabelled “citizens”, that has enabled the easy plunder of minerals, the creation of native-free “nature reserves”, and the widespread environmental damage all over the region.

The freedom of movement is actually the freedom to go and be poor somewhere else, as the plunder of their fertile lands and mineral resources intensifies where indigenous populations once lived.