This month an East African Community (EAC) negotiating team was supposed to be in Juba to verify with various senior officials South Sudan’s application to join the economic bloc.
Considering what is happening in South Sudan of late, all that seems unimportant. It is difficult to negotiate with a divided country anyway.
This does not mean, however, that it can never happen. Simply that all involved should shelve the South Sudan application until the country is stable enough to collectively know what it wants.
A couple of months ago, there were suggestions among South Sudan civil society to hold a referendum on EAC membership.
Although there is nothing wrong with the proposal, it is vital that the South Sudanese realise their best economic interests lie squarely with joining the EAC. EAC leaders also have the responsibility to show that the bloc really can deliver prosperity.
They should begin by highlighting the regional track record in terms of improving trade and investment figures especially after the Customs Union took off, and its recently robust figures despite the effects of the 2008 global economic slowdown.
Today the EAC is steadily working at breaking down non-tariff barriers to make the Common Market a truely seamless entity.
According to the Doing Business Report 2012, the EAC was rated as one of the fastest growing and reforming economies in the world. Intra-EAC trade went up by $1 billion in 2012 from the $4.5 billion recorded in 2011. Current total GDP is about $85 billion.
After some pushing by President Barack Obama, there is a new United States-EAC Trade and Investment Partnership that centres on a regional investment treaty that is expected to attract more American investors to the region.
As things now stand, the EAC is the United States 80th largest trading partner according to figures from the US Trade Representative office. The ranking seems lowly until you realise the significance of having even a toenail in the US market.
Why should South Sudan miss out on these exciting prospects?
The EAC is far from perfect. The bickering among member states is far from over. Indeed, there are times when one is brought close to despair when national self-interests supercede the basic reason for signing the EAC Treaty in the first place.
However the idea of taking on the the world together rather than alone still carries weight.
A look at South Sudan’s surroundings is food for thought. In terms of diplomatic relations, things are still tense with the north. The Central African Republic is caught up in a cycle of instability with various warloads suddenly bursting onto the scene before being replaced by another. Not much economic growth there. To the east, Ethiopia has already expressed strong willingness to apply for EAC membership. Mind you Ethiopia, along with Angola are considered the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa so that intention also speaks for itself. The DRC and Somalia have shown interest too.
The final argument is that South Sudan’s trade and cultural links are skewed towards the EAC, specifically Kenya and Uganda. The two countries are also South Sudan’s top business partners.
The idea of all for one and one for all, may sound romantic. But the fact is, economic integration is all about survival. South Sudan cannot survive alone!