Today, East Africa’s first ever female head of state visits Kenya. Mama Samia Suluhu, the President of the Republic of Tanzania will be in the country to “introduce herself” to her brother President Uhuru Kenyatta and the people of Kenya.
Though Mama Suluhu has been in the country before, this is the first time she is coming as President. Suluhu was sworn in as Tanzania’s President on March 19 shortly after the death and burial of Dr John Pombe Magufuli, the country’s fifth President.
As Kenyans, we have a reason to smile at the fact that Mama Suluhu has seen it fit to visit us barely two months after being sworn in. We see that as a sign of friendship.
Mama is coming in at a time when the relationship between these two sister nations is at the lowest but expectations for cordiality highest.
There have been deliberations, going back to the 1990s, of closer working and living relationships among members of the East Africa Community. The dream of transforming the Community into a political federation has never really disappeared but it is actually not realised yet. It is, surely, a work in progress and Mama’s role it cannot be gainsaid.
Dr Magufuli’s death and Suluhu’s subsequent ascension to the high office came just a couple of months after the former had won a landslide victory for a second term. Having been running mates in that November 2020 general election, it is safe to assume that Suluhu and Magufuli were voted into joint careers of Tanzania’s vision and aspirations. We should also assume that the two had similar aspirations for the region. We therefore want to put the same expectations we had for Magufuli, if not higher, to our dear mother, Mama Suluhu.
As I argued early this year, the re-election of President John Magufuli, and now Mama Suluhu, for a second term, brought to the fore the need the take stock of the current state of affairs in the East Africa Community (EAC) and the region, over 20 years on since its revival and the future prospects. As I posited then, I posit again, what does the elevation of Mama portend for the future of the EAC?
Let me just recap the EAC history for those who missed my earlier piece.
When the EAC was incepted in 1967, it was regarded as an advanced mode of regional economic integration than even the then European Economic Community (now European Union). At the time, the EAC member-states had positioned the East African Common Services Organisation into a juggernaut for offering common transport, telecommunication and postal services.
This was hoped would result in seamless displacement of goods, services, capital and labour around the region unhindered. This seemingly organized system did not last as the integration project collapsed in 1977 citing clash of leaders’ political ideologies, diverging national interest and inadequate political will among other factors.
The dream for banding the region however, did not end with the events of the 1970s as the member-states signed the 1999 Treaty re-establishing the community. This Treaty earnestly entered into force on July 7, 2000, and has over the years seen its membership expand from the original three to six member-states, with South Sudan being the latest entrant. DR Congo and Somalia have their membership applications pending consideration.
Since the restoration of the community, the integration process has been underpinned by the following protocols; the customs union (2005), the common market (2010), and, more recently, the monetary union (2013). While good on paper, the actualization of these protocols has largely remained lame-duck.
Whilst the custom union and common market protocols are operational, the monetary union is yet to be practicalised. In any case, some of the key guiding principles of the common market such as free movement of goods, services, capital and labour is being flouted by the countries on a regular basis. This leads to a fair question, could history be repeating itself?
One of the key variables to explain success or failure of regional integration schemes is national interest. National interest is the engine which countries use to determine their priorities and the subsequent course of action to pursue. Indeed, Comparative Politics scholarship acknowledges that national sovereignty is the basis on which negotiations for setting up sub-regional and regional functional organisations are conducted.
The construction of national interest is inherently a function of the prevailing dominant elite ideology. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in sub-Saharan Africa, where the influence of the elite class over the institutions is stronger owing to weak vertical and horizontal institutions of accountability.
These narrow national interests projected by the EAC states have broad implications on not only the country's domestic agenda, but also on external affairs such as the pursuit of regional integration. In the EAC, previous experience indicates that pursuit of narrow national interests have always stood on the way towards advancing forward the integration agenda.
The particular case of Tanzania stands out. Starting from the times of Julius Nyerere to date, Tanzania’s unique circumstances have always militated against the spirit of EAC integration. At independence, the country like the other newly independent states had to confront the nation-building challenges, leaving regional integration as a secondary concern. Tanzania’s economy was relatively less developed compared to that of its neighbours Kenya and Uganda. This has made improvement of its economic situation, the main preoccupation of the subsequent administrations to have ruled Tanzania, ostensibly to ‘catch-up or leapfrog’ it’s economically advanced neighbours.
This pursuit of economic agenda can be said to be the ‘original sin’ that has come to define Tanzania’s relations with its neighbours over the years. Instructively, Tanzania’s actions or regional posture have brought to bear the assertions of the war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that ‘a state's behaviour is motivated by its needs to survive and prosper.’
But survival and prosperity of a member nation is not mutually exclusive with working harmoniously with others. In fact, the two are complementary. And that is why Mama and President Kenyatta must make this first date the beginning of a more solid East African family. The projected adoption of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as acting last born of the union should motivate the two “parents” further.
Welcome home Mama! This time, make sure the union works.