A survey conducted by the East African Institute showed less than 5 per cent of youth between the age of 18-35 years identify as belonging to the polity that is the East African Community. They believe the EAC is a political construct of the elite — some regional trade deal to open up markets for free movement of goods, labour and capital.
The community of the people of East Africa is not just a figment that dwells in the minds of the political and business elite. It is more than an expansionist or federal obsession of the Arusha bureaucrats. The Community is more than the lofty dreams of common currency or common trade tariffs.
There is something more wholesome — we the people. We are the Community. The community, joined by bonds of kinship and exchange as are ancient as the hills. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta or Milton Obote did not bequeath the Community to us. When they created the first EAC, they were merely repairing the division that was wrought upon the people of East Africa by the British and the Germans.
Across the borders, we share languages, traditions and beliefs. We share the picturesque beauty and splendor of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, the Indian Ocean, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Elgon, the Great Rift Valley, the Mara and yes the iconic statuesque men and women of the savannas. More importantly, our destiny is shared through the fears, hopes and aspirations of our youth.
When asked what the future will look like, the youth from Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania had a consensus about the expansion of material wealth among the few. The youth also believed there would be better access to quality health, education, and that there would be more jobs for the youth. In Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, they believed there would be more corruption and substance abuse and that their societies would be poorer in ethics and values.
The youth were unequivocal about what they want government to do tackle urgently. Nearly 70 per cent of them want government to address unemployment and expand access to capital for investment. Youth were confident about their skills for entrepreneurship and possessed strong entrepreneurial aspirations, with over 60 per cent of saying they would like to start a business.
Although the youth suffer the highest rates of unemployment, they are willing to be part of the solution, if only the government could provide access to investment capital, business opportunities, skills, and advisory services.
But more importantly, high unemployment among the youth in the EAC should invite us to examine the structural flaws that have caused just so few to reap the benefits of the last two decades of economic prosperity.
Clearly, there is no such a thing as trickle down prosperity. To secure the EAC, we must grapple with our biggest challenge — youth unemployment — and harness the potential demographic dividend to drive greater and inclusive prosperity.
Dr Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University