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What do Africans think about the proposed East African Federation?

An Afrobarometer survey suggests citizens aren’t aware of the plans for regional integration

- September 9, 2022

The East African Community (EAC) took its first major step toward integration in 2005, forming a customs union that allows for free trade within the community and common tariffs on external trade. The next milestone, a common market with free movement of goods, services and labor, launched in 2010. The EAC’s ultimate goal is full federation of the seven member states — Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — that would install a single central government with common foreign and security policies.

On the way toward this goal, the EAC plans to establish a confederation in 2023 that would begin unifying foreign and security policies without yet forming a central governing body, and to form a monetary union with a single currency by 2024. Proponents believe that the unified market and shared strategic security will create an “African powerhouse.”

But how do ordinary citizens feel about “eastafricanization”? Achieving full federation would eventually require a referendum in every partner nation. Would the people be on board?

Findings from Afrobarometer’s face-to-face interviews with 2,400 Kenyans in November 2021 suggest that ordinary citizens may not support the march toward federation. Most Kenyans are not familiar with federation plans. A slim majority support the customs union and common market, which already exist. Support for moving to a common currency and a single government appears to lag behind the governments’ plans.

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EAC ‘relatively well integrated’

EAC member states have long been joined by cultures and languages (especially Kiswahili) that cross national borders. Since formally reestablishing the EAC in 1999, two decades after its predecessor collapsed in 1977, they have advanced significantly on the path toward integration. The appeal of federation is evident in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s decision to join as the seventh member in April 2022.

In addition to the customs union and common market, in 2018 the EAC introduced a common, machine-readable East African e-passport to replace national passports and boost free movement of people within the community.

The 2019 Africa Regional Integration Index Report rated the EAC as “relatively well integrated,” identifying the free movement of people and macroeconomic integration as the areas of greatest progress. It ranked Kenya as the best-performing member state.

Lack of popular awareness

The EAC says it has “people-centered” goals that focus on East African citizens as the primary beneficiaries of integration, an approach that is aligned with the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a strategic framework for inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Yet our survey found that a majority of Kenyans have either heard “nothing” (36 percent) or just “a small amount” (22 percent) about the proposed East African Federation (EAF); 8 percent said they “don’t know” enough to even comment on the question.

More educated Kenyans are more likely to be aware of the EAF. More than four in 10 respondents with postsecondary education have heard “some” or “a great deal” about the federation. That’s more than three times the proportion among those with no formal education, as you can see in the chart below. Men (41 percent) are much more informed than women (27 percent). The government appears to have done an especially poor job of building awareness among youth, where only 28 percent have heard of it, compared with 42 percent of the oldest cohort.

The percentage of people in Kenya who have heard
The percentage of people in Kenya who have heard “some” or “a great deal” about the proposed East African Federation. (2021 survey)

Weak popular support for the pillars of integration

Although the common market’s free movement of goods, services and labor — intended to help East Africans prosper by promoting trade and economic freedom — has been in operation for more than a decade, only a slim majority (52 percent) of Kenyans approve of this policy, while 42 percent reject it. Support has dropped substantially since Afrobarometer asked similar questions in 2008, when 64 percent favored free movement of goods and services and 63 percent wanted free movement of labor in the region.

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A 2019 survey finding is consistent with an ambivalent attitude toward free trade: Kenyans were sharply divided on whether the country should pursue open trade (49 percent support) or protect domestic producers (48 percent).

Other aspects of integration are even less popular, as you can see in the figure below. Only 49 percent of Kenyans support adopting a single currency. Just 44 percent endorse the “formation of a unitary government, including having one East African president.”

Kenyans' views on various aspects of integration (2021 survey).
Kenyans’ views on various aspects of integration (2021 survey).

The East African Legislative Assembly: An opportunity for greater engagement?

One way to engage Africans more in the integration process might be through the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), an EAC institution responsible for legislation, oversight and representing citizens’ rights and interests at the regional level.

Each partner country has nine EALA representatives, nominated by political parties and elected by national parliaments in proportion to each party’s share of parliamentary seats. But many parties do not make these selections in open and democratic ways. As a result, the representatives selected may be more interested in serving the personal interests of party leaders than in representing their nation’s citizens. In fact, during Kenya’s recent election campaign, the EAC Secretariat warned political parties not to use EALA seats as consolation prizes for candidates who lost their elections.

Letting member nations’ citizens directly elect their EALA representatives could have two benefits. First, the election campaigns could raise awareness among East Africans about what the EAC is doing. And second, citizens might select more effective and suitable representatives.

Currently, only three in 10 Kenyans say they have heard “some” (20 percent) or “a great deal” (9 percent) about the EAC’s legislative body. Perhaps because so few have heard of it, only 47 percent say ordinary Kenyans should directly elect EALA representatives, while 44 percent say they prefer the current system in which parliamentary parties select those representatives.

Awareness of the East African Legislative Assembly in Kenya (2021 survey).
Awareness of the East African Legislative Assembly in Kenya (2021 survey).

While the EAC has achieved important integration milestones, its citizens remain uninformed and unconvinced of the benefits. To bolster support for monetary union and confederation, governments may wish to build awareness among East Africans about what’s to come.

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Mercy Kaburu (@Mercy56770229) is an assistant professor of international relations at United States International University-Nairobi.

Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.