Uganda belongs to a league of five nations that make the East African Community. According to former East African Community (EAC) Secretary General Juma Mwapachu, is the oldest regional economic organisation in the world’.
Historically, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have enjoyed a long history of co-operation. So much so that as early 1917, there was already a customs union between Kenya and Uganda, which the then Tanganyika joined in 1927.
This was followed by the East African High Commission (EAHC) from 1948 to 1961, the East African Common Services Organization (EACSO) from 1961 to 1967, and the 1967 to 1977 East African Community (EAC) which Burundi and Rwanda joined on 6 July 2009.
East Africa was lucky to have a visionary late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania which was the first country in East Africa to get independence, he was even prepared to delay his country’s independence in order to wait for Uganda and Kenya to also become independent so that the three could together, forge East African political union.
When he realized that the regional union was going to take long, he channeled his efforts into uniting the then Tanganyika and Zanzibar into the present union that is Tanzania which came into being in 1964. And after Uganda and Kenya got their independence in 1962 and 1963 respectively, Nyerere ensured he championed the creation of the EAC through which co-operation was to be made easy. His effort was repaid in 1967.
Having realized and understood the economic interests of the British colonialists in setting up the East African High Commission (EAHC) in 1948, he went ahead to put emphasis on strengthening common services like railways, harbors, airways, customs unions, postal services, a regional university of East Africa and other common services.
In order to strengthen the community further and to ease communication among the members of the community, he advocated for the adoption of a common language. Tanzania and Kenya adopted Kiswahili as their national language.
It is from this wise counsel that supporters of a regional airline have always got their inspiration. When we had an East African Airways (EAA), it was the most successful on the continent and one of the best in the world. It had enough passengers from the Community (EAC). Planes would collect passengers from the three countries, board them on one big plane and then flew them to Europe, Asia, and to the United States.
On realising that airline business was good business, the thieves in our different countries hatched plans to undermine the community airline under the guise of nationalism in order to create national airlines which they would use as their cash cow. They killed the EAC which had been established in 1967, and started national airlines which as predicted, could not stand the test of time.
When the EAC was reborn in 2000, the people of the region called for the revival of East African airways. But as usual, the usual suspects fronted some airline connected with South African Airways to make sure EAA is not resurrected because it would interfere with their thievery. As we talk today, Kenya Airways is near collapse having incurred a record Kenya Sh25.7 billion loss – making it the highest loss-making company in East Africa.
As for Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania, they have really been dead for years. Until recently when we heard that former defunct Uganda Development Corporation (UDC), had been mandated to revive Uganda Airlines.
The purpose of this opinion is to first of all remind Uganda government that British Airways only recently pulled their operations out of Uganda and Tanzania because their operations were no longer commercially viable. We know there is of course business; the problem is that they could no longer compete with the other carries in our market. So how can Uganda Airlines compete?
What makes sense is going back to our regional airline now that the Community is back and even bigger with the addition of Rwanda and Burundi. Sudan would also like to join the community.
These are too many passengers, for one airline. A few years ago Kenya stood in the way of the revival of EAA. Today, it is on its knees, is begging to be bailed out by government, and it would gladly jump on to the idea of a revival of a well-managed regional airline. The Kenyan politicians are already calling for its liquidation.
The timing is therefore right for the revival of EAC now that there is clear evidence that going it alone our small individual airline have no chance of reaching their destinations. But most importantly, our region has never been more attractive to the outside world in terms of business opportunities.
What the people of East Africa want is a well managed, successful airline in which the people have a stake through shareholding. Once they do, they will patronize it, especially, government travelers.
The only thing standing in the way of the revival of a regional airline are the greedy leaders and their business cohorts. What is a Community for if the people can’t share in the services and benefits?
The co-operation between our cherished regional airline and other airlines should be mutual and beneficial to all. And finally, South African Airways through Alliance Air, and KLM, will go down as airlines which undermined our regional aviation industry. We now need to put the collective interests of our region first and all agreements with foreign airlines must reflect this interest.
Most importantly, let us live airline business to airline professionals. Uganda government and the Uganda Development Corporation need to consult those in the know because Airlines alone is not viable, cannot compete with the big airlines converging on Africa and East Africa in particular, and within the present international legal framework signed on by Uganda in ignorance.
By the way, as we discuss whether we need an airline or not, we need to be aware that there are many people in our region who will do anything and everything to ensure maintenance of the statusquo. They must be resisted for the greater good.