East African trade zone off to creaky start

Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania have one of the most robust integration plans in Africa. But it won't be easy.

The train, with its 21 box cars full of maize bound for hungry folks in Tanzania, was supposed to leave at 8 a.m.

It's now 2:30 p.m., and train driver Moses Mukungu promises departure is imminent. "Soon," he says, "soon."

This freight train's troubled journey is a metaphor for regional integration. To get its cargo from Uganda's capital, it only has to travel 6.8 miles down the track, to a local port - from which it'll go by ferry across giant Lake Victoria to Tanzania.

Such a journey used to be routine as part of a once-vibrant rail and ferry network, constructed in the late 1800s, that linked Britain's east African colonies. But in recent decades, the railway has all but deteriorated.

Now efforts to sustain and rebuild the transit system are moving in parallel with fresh moves to expand trade within groups of African nations - and fuse those groups into regional blocs, a là NAFTA and the European Union, all with the goal of bringing globalization-style prosperity to the poorest continent.

Three East African countries have, arguably, the most-robust integration effort in Africa: There are plans to unite the 82 million people of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania into a unified market, with a single currency, by 2009 - and elect a common president by 2010. But many hurdles remain.

Meanwhile, as the train's workers scramble to get their cargo moving, bureaucrats, merchants, and politicians hustle toward regional unity and trade.

"If we had an efficient system," says train operations manager Johnson Okelo, trade between the three countries "would be so big."

It's 2:59, and the train suddenly lurches forward, shudders backward, and then slowly starts rolling ahead. Mr. Mukungu, the driver, flashes a smile and holds the horn for a long blast. People seem surprised to see the train moving. What used to be four scheduled trips a day on this route has fallen to a scattershot schedule of maybe four per week.

Likewise, many were surprised last year when the three East African Community countries fast-tracked their economic and political integration - aiming for the 2009 and 2010 targets. Many are skeptical. A recent report by the Chr. Michelsen Institute, a development think tank in Norway, found that "hardly anybody" involved in the process sees the 2010 date as realistic - and many suspect political integration could take until 2015, 2020, or even 2050.

Nor is success guaranteed: A previous effort at unity collapsed in 1977 amid dictatorship under Idi Amin in Uganda, socialism in Tanzania, and capitalism in Kenya.

But this time, many tariffs between the countries have already been eliminated. Goods and people are flowing more freely. Lawyers from any one country, for instance, can now practice in the other two. Residents can now get East African passports that enable them to travel freely between the three nations. And all three economies grew steadily last year: Uganda's by 9 percent, Tanzania's by 6 percent, Kenya's by 5 percent.

"It is a very long journey" toward regional economic integration "but at least the journey has started," says Ugandan businessman Abid Alam, who recently bought a steel plant in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa - and plans to export steel across the region and beyond. "There is," he adds, "no going back."

Yet major challenges remain. Swahili is Tanzania's official language, but for Kenya and Uganda, it's English. Also, Tanzania is also a one of 14 members of the Southern African Development Community, which includes South Africa and aims to be a free-trade area by 2008. It will have to choose one grouping or the other. Also, Ugandan and Tanzanian businesspeople fear economic powerhouse Kenya will dominate the region.

More important, some say, are troubled politics. "The wheels are more or less coming off the fast-tracking because of the political situation" in Kenya and Uganda, warns Rok Ajulu, a Kenyan professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Kenya's recent crackdown on the media hints at an unstable political environment, which observers say isn't good for building economic cooperation.

In Uganda, after 20 years in power, Mr. Museveni muscled through changes to the constitution to allow himself to run for - and, last month, win - a third term in power. His opponent, Kizza Besigye, faced continuous legal, police, and military harassment, including being charged with treason and terrorism. Museveni, a once-and-always freedom fighter, told the media recently that this era of his fight would be "struggling for the integration of Africa."

Yet many worry his anti-democratic moves could have the opposite effect. "The fact that Museveni hasn't been able to engineer unity in his own country means you can't even begin to have the fast-tracking of political integration" on a regional scale, warns Dr. Ajulu.

Meanwhile, Uganda Railways' disintegrating equipment has created slow-downs. Only 16 of its 54 locomotives are now working, for instance. With a $200 million investment, rail chief Mr. Okelo says, the system could nearly double its monthly load of 70,000 tons of cargo. A South African company agreed last year to take over the railway and invest in repairs. But the transfer is mired in legal troubles.

So, for now, as the train nears the port, train driver Mukungu makes do with his balky equipment. But he's optimistic. Without these daily delays, he says, "there would be so much business."

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