Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli has finally made his maiden visit to Kenya, only his third official state visit to a foreign country since he took office a year ago. All his previous visits were short trips to neighbouring countries Rwanda, twice, and Uganda.
That all his engagements have been within the East African Community seems to underline a foreign policy shift re-positioning Tanzania as a leading regional actor. His predecessor, President Jakaya Kikwete, was less enthusiastic about regional integration. Tanzania’s apparent aloofness under Kikwete gave rise to the formation of a so-called “coalition of the willing”. This saw Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda acting together to fast track regional development projects.
Magufuli’s visit to Kenya is therefore being seen as as an attempt to reaffirm Tanzania’s place within the East African Community. Just as importantly, it is also being seen as an attempt to reset bilateral relations with Kenya which, at best, have been lukewarm under his watch.
The talks between Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Magufuli appear designed to put to one side their perceived personal and ideological differences. This will not only have an impact on the two countries but also regional integration efforts.
Relations got off to a rocky start early in Magufuli’s term when he disrupted Kenya’s stewardship role in the “coalition of the willing”. He did so by working with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to re-route Uganda’s planned oil pipeline through Tanzania after Kenya appeared to have secured it.
The celebrations that followed in Dar es Salaam were matched in their intensity only by the bitterness felt in Nairobi. Many commentators felt that the move undermined Kenya’s economic plans which were partly hinged on the large scale regional infrastructural projects. These also included the expansion of ports and a brand new standard gauge railway.
Diplomatic relations were brought to boiling point during negotiations to finalise a trade deal between the European Union and the East Africa Community. Kenya signed the final agreement but Tanzania flatly refused citing national interest. Many in the Kenyan government and the business sector saw this as an attempt to undermine Kenya’s economic growth and development
“Winner takes all” mentality
For a start, both countries need to avoid the “winner takes all” mentality that has defined competition between them for regional trade and infrastructure projects.
For instance, after Magufuli’s visits to Rwanda and Uganda, both countries agreed to drop earlier plans of a joint railway with Kenya connecting them to Mombasa. Instead they agreed to work with Tanzania on a railway line connecting to Tanzania’s port city of Dar as Salaam.
Another project to come out of the “coalition of the willing” was a Uganda oil pipeline that would pass through Kenya to Lamu. After intense diplomatic lobbying by Tanzania, Uganda opted to pump its crude exports to the small port of Tanga north of Dar es Salaam.
Mistrust between the two countries has also revolved around bilateral and regional trade negotiations and agreements. At the bilateral level, Kenya has regularly complained about non-tariff barriers on its exports to Tanzania. It has also accused Tanzanian officials of being complicit in the mistreatment of Kenyan business owners through punitive measures such as cancellation of work permits.
In return Kenya has at times reciprocated with debilitating consequences. An example was Nairobi’s decision to bar Tanzanian tour vans from accessing Jomo Kenyatta airport.
Towards a common agenda
Magufuli’s grand posturing has positioned Tanzania as an alternative regional economic powerhouse. This has been seen by some in Kenya as a threat to Kenya’s traditional geostrategic advantage as the gateway to the region.
The result has been Kenya’s attempts to strengthen its trade and diplomatic engagements with its northern neighbours. Just hours before Magufuli’s visit, President Kenyatta was in Sudan on an official trip in what was seen as an effort to strengthen bilateral trade agreements. Diplomatic and trade ties have also been stepped up with Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The strained relationship is unproductive and unnecessary given the significant trade relations between the two countries. This is explained by the fact that Tanzania is currently one of Kenya’s largest export markets within the region. For its part Tanzania relies heavily on Kenyan industries and businesses companies for foreign investments. These provide revenue and employment opportunities as was reiterated by Magufuli during his two day state visit.
In addition to close trade relations, both countries are also partners within the common East Africa Community market, with a set of economic growth and development policies as their priorities. It would therefore be expected that they should jointly try and create a conducive environment for regional and foreign investment.
The two countries should take a common stand in pushing to end the political instability in Burundi and South Sudan. Both are East Africa Community member states. They should also cooperate on strengthening regional trade agreements to ensure sharing of regional public goods. These include the European Union Economic Partnership Agreement with the regional common market countries.
Closer cooperation between Kenya and Tanzania will have two major likely outcomes. The first is bringing to an end divisions among East Africa Community members. The second is to invigorate collective efforts aimed at deepening integration as well as the protection of common interests.
The first example of this is the decision by Tanzania and other regional member states to endorse the candidature of Amina Mohamed for the African Union chairperson.
The renewed commitment to speed up a planned joint commission between Kenya and Tanzania is another. This forum is expected to formulate future areas of cooperation between the two states. It would also provide a framework for avoiding diplomatic tensions that have at times characterised relations between the two countries.