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Jan 26, 2017 | 09:45 GMT

The Untapped Potential of Lake Victoria

The Untapped Potential of Lake Victoria
(CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The East African Community's political and economic integration efforts will help overcome deep geographic obstacles to cooperation.
  • Cultural divisions and diverging interests — both within countries in the region and across their borders — will hinder consolidation via the East African Community and, as a result, the region’s ability to project influence and power.
  • The region will remain conducive to the development of powers on a regional scale, if not more.

Sub-Saharan Africa has never produced what, at least on a global scale, could be regarded in the field of geopolitics as a great power. But the continent continually has been molded by its own clearly defined power dynamics, the geographic foundations of which have remained recognizable throughout history. The region in East Africa surrounding Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, is one such place where geography remains central to the landscape of power today.

Upland Empires

The highlands enveloping Lake Victoria long have been conducive for thriving local populations. The lake itself is a critical source of fresh water and food. The surrounding area, crisscrossed with rivers and boasting a favorable climate, is ideal for the agricultural development to sustain populations and generate trade. The high altitude limits the humidity, hindering the spread of potentially devastating tropical diseases such as malaria. These geographical features matter a great deal to the evolution of civilizations.

Indeed, the region's precolonial history is dotted with empires, such as Ruanda and Urundi (from the 17th century to around the turn of the 20th century) and Buganda (in the 14th century). Some vague historical accounts even talk of a vast ancient empire known as the Bachwezi or Kitara, which supposedly stretched from eastern parts of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo to western Kenya, surrounding Lake Victoria. Archeological finds throughout the region have lent credence to these accounts, though historians have stressed that this was likely more of a loose federation of people with a shared culture rather than an empire under an authoritarian ruler, limiting its ability to project power as a single entity.

This does not mean that populations in the Lake Victoria watershed were destined to become dominant regional powers. In fact, throughout most of the region's history, until European colonization took root around the 1890s, the area was largely too divided to be able to project power beyond the uplands. The inherent geographic value of the Lake Victoria region has not always been enough to overcome deficiencies in governance or economic limitations.

In fact, the region's geography contributed to these shortcomings and divides. The rugged topography features several discrete mountain ranges, creating numerous valleys and distinct plains around the lake. As a result, populations that settled in the area generally developed in isolation from one another. There are signs that some consolidation of governments took place in various precolonial empires, but such structures were invariably, at most, highly decentralized. Absent modern means of communication and transportation, the geographic disconnects made further consolidation unfeasible. Partially as a result, the reach of these ancient empires was contained to the regional highlands.

The Europeans Arrive

In modern East Africa, the states surrounding Lake Victoria have largely broken out of this geographic containment, with Kenya and Tanzania in particular drawing strength from their access to coastal areas, particularly around Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. But upland East African populations did not begin to merge with those along the coastlines until the British and Germans arrived to establish colonies. At that point, the conditions of the Lake Victoria region became ideal for more than just the sustenance of local populations; they had evolved into a foundation for trade as well. The colonial powers required control of the coastlines — maritime transport was the only feasible way to stay connected with their homelands in Europe. And the highlands produced the riches — tea, coffee and other commodities — that colonizers were looking to export back home. (The European colonists also preferred the gentler climate of the highlands to the lowlands, where they were vulnerable to the spread of tropical diseases.) Thus, throughout the colonial era, the highlands and the coasts grew ever closer, with the British territories eventually subsuming German East Africa. This brought the area around Lake Victoria — and its access to global markets — together into a single entity.

Lake Victoria Burundi Kenya Tanzania Uganda Rwanda
After the Europeans began to leave, the newly formed states that emerged generally followed the same lines as the historical political entities that existed before colonization, fracturing the region's enforced unity. But since then, even without the full political consolidation of the region, strong regional actors have consistently emerged from the area surrounding the lake. Uganda, for example, has been particularly active in security operations throughout East and Central Africa. And the region as a whole has been gradually looking to once again reap the economic benefits of loose consolidation through the development of the regional body known as the East African Community.

Making East Africa Great Again?

The East African Community combines Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania into a single economic and political bloc. While the organization does not exactly bring the area under unified rule, it has helped knit the region's interests together, strengthening its position. Perhaps the most notable development has been the creation of transportation infrastructure that has helped tame the fractured geography of the region. This effort is still a work in progress, but the emphasis on rail and road networks, and to a lesser degree on pipelines, is promoting ever-stronger connections between the populations around Lake Victoria with those along the coasts, unlocking significant opportunities for growth. The East African Community is also integrating regional economies through its single customs union and steps toward the establishment of a single currency by 2023, plus other efforts to reduce waste and make trade and investment within its bloc more attractive.

Despite its ambition, the East African Community does not yet amount to substantial political consolidation, and integration has been hindered by competition among its members. The development of infrastructure, for example, has occasionally become ensnared in the rivalry between Tanzania and Kenya, with the two governments promoting different road and rail routes around Lake Victoria and onward to the bloc's inland states. Moreover, not all members have benefited equally from the custom union; the inland states now favor imports from outside of the region over those from the coastal states.

 

Cooperation across the Lake Victoria region is further complicated by age-old ethnic and cultural divisions that often transcend national borders, as well as differences between the coasts and the fertile highlands that are rooted in their largely individual histories.

Cooperation across the Lake Victoria region is further complicated by age-old ethnic and cultural divisions that often transcend national borders, as well as differences between the coasts and the fertile highlands that are rooted in their largely individual histories. Before colonial consolidation of the region, the coastal areas of East Africa were anchored by what essentially were city-states. Some grew relatively prosperous from facilitating trade between Europe and Asia as well as through the local slave trade. The city-states faced Arab incursions that sought to establish sultanates along the East African coast with an eye on dominating regional trade, leading to the development of substantial Muslim populations. In Kenya, coastal communities continue to routinely find themselves at odds with the tribal-dominated politics in Nairobi.

Projecting Power

These days, the countries of the Lake Victoria region are increasingly competing for influence and resources with other regions of Africa as well. In the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, Uganda and Rwanda have long supported various rebel groups that, in exchange, have facilitated the smuggling of natural resources. In this theater, Uganda and Rwanda have faced major competition from southern African countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Angola and even Tanzania, which has at times found itself identifying with this more unified southern grouping than with the divided Lake Victoria region. Several of these southern African countries, for example, have spearheaded peacekeeping operations that put a stop to Uganda and Rwanda's use of the M23 rebel group in the eastern Congolese region of North Kivu.

A similar theater of competition can be found to the north in South Sudan, where Uganda is providing significant support for the government, while Ethiopia occasionally offers refuge to rebel factions. Lake Victorian states are also squaring off against Ethiopia to gain influence in Somalia, where nearly 17,000 troops from Uganda, Burundi and Kenya are taking part in peacekeeping operations alongside another 5,000 Ethiopian troops. Though the forces are ostensibly working toward the same goal, the manner in which they were initially deployed was motivated in large part by competition over buffer zones within Somalia, particularly the tri-border area among Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The peacekeeping operation also demonstrates how common interests can unite the states surrounding Lake Victoria, in this case the threat of jihadist terrorism that has struck Uganda and Kenya in the past.

Altogether, members of the East African Community are making their presence felt far from Lake Victoria. And to the extent that those states can overcome their internal splits and further their aims of political and economic consolidation, the area's geography creates potential for them to project power and influence over an even greater area. The region cannot be described as a unified empire by any means, but the growing coordination among its states makes it an increasingly substantial player among the many layers of competition that are rooted in geography and still shaping sub-Saharan Africa today.

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