For telecoms-tycoon-turned-philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, it's one step forward, two steps back. For Benno Ndullu, governor of the central Bank of Tanzania, the whole thing is bound to stall unless problems are ironed out first.

For many Tanzanians, it's a threat to their jobs, language and prospects.

But for the leaders of the five-member East African Community (EAC), signing the common market protocol on Friday represents the future fortunes of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda combined.

Signing the document -- the culmination of a relatively speedy 18 months of negotiation -- will mean goods, services and the community's 126 million people can move freely across their borders, in theory at least.

Together, the five countries muster $60 billion in gross domestic product combined, and believe they can prosper better as one unit than apart.

Already they have a customs union, but by 2012 they foresee sharing a single currency and finally political federation.