By 1884/5 when the Berlin Conference took place, the tormentors had decided to share Africa like bread.
The impact of this slicing continues to haunt East African countries and their neighbours.
The continued quarrels over Migingo island between Uganda and Kenya and the unfinished questions between Tanzania and Malawi over a swamp threatens the big picture of the East African integration.
This tiny island floating on Lake Victoria can easily be consumed by water but two countries continue to exchange bitter words over it. What does the East African Community Treaty say on the common resources that member states share? Do we need any amendment of the treaty since we envisage the political federation by the year 2015, according to an earlier political road map?
In the case of fish, let us say one tilapia wants to cross from the side of Uganda to Kenya; does it require a passport or visa?
Recently, East African leaders assembled in Entebbe and discussed a number of issues, e.g. refinery, railway, identity cards, non-tariff barriers, etc. All these were good ideas, but if we don’t solve small questions of fishing or hunting, we may disrupt our great vision of East Africa.
The island may not be of obvious strategic importance, it is rocky, tiny and nothing grows on it, but it is not a small pumpkin. It is a fishing island that could have other values. We need to appreciate history. In 1977 we parted ways because individual member states thought they could progress on their own.
But with time we realised that we had slowed down terribly and that had we embraced integration to its logical conclusion, perhaps we could now be the envy of the rest of the world. The borders separating us were a creation of colonialists to serve their selfish ends.
We have never got our heads around these facts and realised that since then the world has moved on, we need to do the same. This can only happen if we break the imaginary borders in our minds and overcome the fear, indignation and suspicion that have long haunted member states, as we seek to build a better region.
Let us not even attempt to go to court; the experience and examples on the continent do not offer us any reprieve. For instance, the row between Botswana and Namibia over a small island in River Chobe was submitted to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1996 after the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), failed to resolve it.
It took the world court four years to settle it after reviewing 600 pages of hearings, 38,000 written memoranda, including historical documents and maps. In addition, six scientists involved in the case made written and oral presentations regarding the island’s hydrology, geomorphology, cartography and history, which was necessary evidence in the adjudication.
The dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon over the oil-rich Bakasi peninsula also went to the world court in 1994, after 30 years of failure to resolve it with the intervention of regional leaders and institutions, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
It took eight years of court hearings and submissions for the case to be settled and many years for Nigeria to accept the ruling. Closer to East Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war in 1998-2000 over a small town at their common border called Badme. After the war, they agreed to have an international boundary commission using old colonial maps.
The commission decided in Eritrea’s favour but till today Badme is under the administration of Ethiopia, which argues that the boundary commission acted in error. Therefore, it is important for our leaders in the region to quickly sort out the Migingo island issue that is likely to be a bottleneck to regional integration.
The author is a member of Vision East African Forum.