Valerie Sutton / PEXELS

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. By some projections, it will surge to the second spot at the top of the global demographic table by 2100, behind only India. However, there’s now a real sneaky possibility that the East African Community (EAC), should it federate as it aims to do, might steal Nigeria’s thunder.

Earlier this month the Democratic Republic of the Congo acceded to the EAC, swelling the bloc by 94 million people and doubling its territory. The EAC now has about as many people as the United States, and covers more of the planet than India. It stretches, like the world’s great transcontinental countries, a mare usque ad mare, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The EAC is not a country. Not yet, at least. As I write, it’s still a motley collection of states straddling Africa’s waist, operating in a reality of contentious borders and dissonant politics. Before the DRC joined, it consisted of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

Fractious relations

The bloc has been in existence in some form for nearly a century, with its origin in the common colonial history of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Upon independence from the United Kingdom in the early 1960s, these three countries maintained and extended joint stewardship of various services, like education and railways.

The community collapsed in 1977, for multiple reasons. The main one was that everyone had come to despise everyone else. Uganda was ruled by its most famous dictator, Idi Amin; Tanzania had adopted an unrealistic economic system; and Kenya felt it wasn’t getting the big boy respect it deserved.

As part of the collapse, all the common services were de-linked, giving rise to some of the member states’ most important institutions: national airlines, railways, currencies and major educational institutions. Over the next 23 years, each country charted its own path through history.


In 2000, the community was dusted off and resuscitated. Arusha, in northern Tanzania, remained the headquarters. Rwanda and Burundi were admitted in 2009, the first expansion of the community since the addition of Tanganyika (the predecessor of Tanzania) in 1927. South Sudan hopped aboard in 2016.

The community aims to achieve its ultimate goal of political federation by way of a common market, which is already in effect, followed by a customs and monetary union. Of course, the minutiae of nation-building, like a national anthem (which school-children in the member states now sing) and the all-important question of what demonym will be used for the citizens, must not be forgotten.

In any case, federation was supposed to be attained by 2010. This was later pushed to 2023. By 2016, however, it became clear that even this was too ambitious. So the community added confederation as one more step after the monetary union, before ultimate federation. Little in statecraft ever goes according to schedule.


The delays are not circumstantial. A lot of hurdles stand in the way of federation. For one, there are wide disparities in economic development among the member states. Kenya, which is home to a mere sixth of the region’s new combined population, accounts for nearly half of its nominal GDP of USD 250 billion.

The states also differ a lot politically. Uganda and Rwanda are ruled by a pair of political dinosaurs. Burundi is an oppressive recluse. Kenya’s democracy feels contrived. Tanzania is a stable giant held back by its legacy of socialism. South Sudan, along with large parts of the DRC, can’t shake off civil conflict.

Additionally, decades of separate independence have left the citizens of each member state with some semblance of a distinct national identity, which often drives outbursts of toxic nationalism. The desire for federation doesn’t register as deeply as it once might have, especially for those who live far from the borders, and so have little in common with those on the other side.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the new entrant is a vast French-speaking polity, while the other states use English. Only one other territory on the continent, Cameroon, has significant populations on both sides of a similar language divide, and the English-speakers are fighting to leave. Yes, though the English won the war of languages forever ago, Africans still squabble over colonial tongues.

In the face of these challenges, and many others, one might be tempted to conclude that perhaps federation of the community is a pipe dream. The community collapsed once; there’s nothing to guarantee that it will not collapse again; if anything, collapse is the only tested outcome, and human nature the only constant.

Hopes and dreams

More realistic observers counsel patience and steady hands. They lay out reasons for hope, like the fact that the member states are some of the fastest growing economies in the world; that the DRC’s vast mineral wealth can now be more judiciously administered under the framework of the community; that the collective market will be more attractive to foreign investment; and that democracy is developing steadily, if slowly, across the bloc.

There is a third group of observers, made up of hopeless romantics like me, who live close to the borders and belong to the ethnic communities they sheared into different countries, and are perhaps a little doe-eyed about the spectacular success of a certain federative experiment on the western side of the North Atlantic.

Speaking for this group, I am tempted to pronounce that caution in such things only saps our collective energy and needlessly delays what’s most important. More than once, I’ve thought that federation should have been the first step. Africa needs a great power, and only the EAC has any real odds of becoming one while I live. Alas, I know it won’t happen so fast. And maybe that’s for the best. Even Moses didn’t get to enter the promised land. In the meantime, I take what I get with gratitude, like the little fact that now I don’t need a visa to go to Kinshasa.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.