The rebirth of the East Africa Community seems to be coming faster than expected. And the party pushing hardest is the hitherto most unlikely. A few months ago, Tanzania looked like the weakest link in the integration chain of the six countries that are part of the larger East African region. But not anymore!
The region’s newest president seems keener than her older brothers on making the region closer and stronger. And there can’t be better news.
In just about two months in office, President Samia Suluhu, Tanzania’s sixth president and the region’s first female head of state has visited two of her neighbours with a hand of friendship. This is in contrast to her predecessors and obviously a shift of focus in the country’s regional foreign policy.
As she makes her maiden visit to Kenya as president, her main preoccupation is likely to be the long standing cooperation between the two countries particularly in trade, security, education, agriculture and energy, a co-operation that dates back to the establishment of the initial East African Community in 1967.
The two countries are connected by road and rail and massive resources have been allocated to upgrade and maintain the infrastructure that connects them.
However, in the last 5 years, Kenya’s trade relations with neighboring Tanzania have been tepid with each country trying to outshine the other.
The two countries were entangled in long-standing trade restrictions that would have quickly degenerated into a diplomatic spat. The late president John Pombe Magufuli had severed most avenues of bilateral relations with Kenya.
We all recall reports that he burnt chicks imported from Kenya under the pretext of controlling avian flu and auctioned 1,300 cows belonging to Kenyan herders. All these panted Tanzania as obviously spoiling for a fight with Kenya.
Tanzania has rather been hostile with Kenya. They have in the past banned imports of Kenyan milk and blocked maize traders from Zambia en route Kenya from transiting through their country.
Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority’s (TFDA) demanded that all Kenyan exports register, re-label and retest goods already certified by Kenya Bureau and Standards (Kebs). Additionally, Dar es Salaam totally disregarded the East Africa Community common market protocol that calls for free movement of locally manufactured goods by retaining 25 per cent import duty of Kenyan-manufactured confectioneries citing the use of imported industrial sugar.
It also continued to levy a similar tariff on Kenya’s edible oils. The latest spat was when the late Magufuli’s administration blocked Kenya’s national carrier from entering the country after Kenya blacklisted Tanzania due to non-compliance with the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 regulations.
The two neighbours have been jostling for economic influence in East Africa with each seeking to be the regional transit hub. Kenya however seems to be having the upper hand in terms of infrastructural development with its road network measuring twice as long as Tanzania’s at 160,886km and 86,472km respectively.
Kenya is also East Africa’s economic giant with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Ksh11.075 Trillion and a Gross Domestic Product per capita of Sh 227,441 while Tanzania’s GDP is Sh7.029 Trillion and a GDP per capita of Sh. 121,179.
Access to the Indian Ocean by the two countries gives them an edge over the rest of their landlocked neighbours - Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) whose goods have to transit through either ports of Mombasa or Dar es Salaam.
And it is such advantages that should strengthen the ties between the two countries. The two countries should work towards bilateral collaboration rather than the current cut-throat competition at luring landlocked Uganda by independently building modern rail and petroleum networks.
Tanzania’s and Kenya’s relationship is mutually beneficial with the latter increasingly relying on Tanzania’s food supplies while Tanzania citizens flock in droves as traders in Nairobi’s Gikomba Market. As such, the paradigm has to shift to more collaborative and integrated bilateral relations and trade.
Tanzania seems to be moving away from their rather reluctance to participate in matters EAC and other regional bodies where it is a member. Tanzania has been feted for advocating for the use of Kiswahili as an official language at the United Nations and for brokering peace in Burundi. She is quickly playing catch up with Kenya with its homogenous socio-political system that has ensured sustainable peace and stability allowing it to grow its economy.
Luckily, things are looking up as Mama Suluhu is, clearly, committed to strengthening regional ties especially with EAC member states. President Suluhu has highlighted the need for regional co-operation and strengthened ties as a means of fast tracking mutual economic advancement. She has since visited Uganda and, one can guess, she will be visiting the other neighbours after Kenya.
That’s the way to go Mama! For they say “if you want to arrive faster, go alone. But if you want to achieve more, go with others”.