A South Sudanese soldier stands guard outside a cultural center in Juba at the end of a week-long independence vote, 16 Jan 2011.
A South Sudanese soldier stands guard outside a cultural center in Juba at the end of a week-long independence vote, 16 Jan 2011.

With the final referendum votes being counted and south Sudan preparing to cut ties with the north, excitement is building in East Africa, as the prospects of an expanded political and economic union draw near.

While official results from south Sudan?s historic election are not expected until February, unofficial tallies indicate nearly universal support for separation from the north.  Visions of the future in Africa?s newest country are already taking shape, and with them are visions of a greater East Africa.

The East African Community, a regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, this week began discussions on how to establish a monetary union and single currency for the east African region.  The eventual goal of the group is complete integration, with an alliance similar to that of the European Union.

South Sudan?s vote provides the region with an opportunity to expand its political and economic influence within Africa.  Kenyan parliament member and Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Richard Onyonka believes the prospects of including South Sudan are exciting.

"Many of us, all of us, within the region are very, very excited because the opportunities that this creates are going to be wonderful for everybody," said Onyonko. "But as politics is and as business is, it must be handled carefully."

There are already reports of rising prices in the south, as the flow of goods from the north slows in anticipation of the split.  But the trading freeze opens up a new market to business from powerhouses such as Kenya and Uganda.
And while the official results have not yet been released, south Sudan was long expected to opt for secession.

With vast deposits of oil available for export to the region as well, and large demand for development and goods, East African countries have been preparing for months, even years, to take advantage of the south?s independence.
Uganda is set to begin construction of a railroad that will link Kampala with the southern Sudanese capital of Juba.

Not to be outdone, Kenya?s government has included development of the "Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor" as part of its Vision 2030 plan.  The crown jewel in this plan is the ground-up construction of a new port city in Lamu, a sleepy island off Kenya?s northern coast.

The planned port city includes an oil refinery and pipeline directly to Juba, as well as an international airport.  The project has received the attention of both China and Japan, with Japan expressing interest in the pipeline construction, and China looking to finance the billion-dollar project.

If completed, the new port could become the main point of export for Sudanese oil outside of Africa.
But excitement over the expansion of the EAC is not simply one sided.  South Sudan first applied for observer status within the organization in 2007, but the EAC requires all members to be recognized states, and rejected the south?s application.

But the EAC?s chief referendum observer Abdul Harelimana told VOA that despite the initial refusal, south Sudan is very much interested in joining the East Africa Community.

"When we were there, after the referendum took place, we met the president again," he said.  "And he said that ?once we are independent, we would like to join the East African Community.?  `He wants it and the other authorities also want it."

The addition of south Sudan?s markets and oilfields would certainly make East Africa an attractive destination for foreign investment and trade.  The region is a world leader in the export of agricultural products such as flowers and tea.  It also boasts advanced telecommunications networks, financial markets and large port facilities.
But East African economic analyst Robert Shaw says there is more work needed, particularly in Kenya, before the region can realize its potential.

"Oil, as a component, would add another dimension to the economic complexity of the region," said Shaw. "Kenya is the hub.  The challenge for Kenya is to meet those infrastructure demands.  And it is not just a challenge it is also, commercially, very beneficially."

While planning for South Sudan?s eventual entry into the East Africa Community, politically and economically, is already taking place, it will be some time before Africa?s newest state can join.  According to the Treaty governing the East African Community, south Sudan must first demonstrate its democratic and governance credentials as well as establish and maintain a market driven economy before being considered for membership.