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Regional political unity in East Africa has been a persistently imagined, yet weakly institutionalised agenda since independence. In early 1960s British East Africa, the idea of a regional federation was initially a colonial policy to protect British interests after independence; nonetheless, it was seized upon with apparent enthusiasm by nationalist leaders, and in the summer of 1963 preceding Kenyan independence, all observers agreed that federation was a very likely prospect. Yet this possibility rapidly receded in the face of disagreement among leaders over a range of issues concerning the likely distribution of economic benefits and political power among the three territories concerned (Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda) and a reluctance to dilute the newly won fruits of state sovereignty. The subsequent formation of the East African Community (EAC) in 1967, though often described as a brave experiment in regional integration, might be seen as a rear-guard action against processes of regional disintegration. The EAC survived a decade before its collapse into – unusually in Africa – inter-state war between Tanzania and Uganda.

This project aims to recapture the sense of possibility associated with imagining a supra-national political community in the region following decolonisation, but also the limits of such possibilities. Why did this vision of the future gain such apparent traction in the early 1960s, and what remained of such enthusiasm by the 1970s? Was regional unity only attractive to political elites or was it a (more) powerful idea among a wider section of ‘civil society’? Was support for regional unity a means of critiquing the nation-state; or was it a means of ‘regime-boosting’ for political elites, performing regional solidarity among themselves, whilst further excluding opposition groups and citizens from power and influence? What brought about the final collapse of the EAC; rivalries among leaders, and opposing models of political economy; or a wider public consciousness of national differences by the 1970s?

The project aims to link these historical findings to the contemporary politics of regional integration: the EAC was re -established in 2000, and political federation remains a rhetorical goal for the community. The resilience of the idea of unity – and the persistent limits on how far leaders have been willing to surrender sovereignty to it – make investigation of the history of regional integration a matter of considerable importance.