When word first went round that Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu was coming to Kenya, there were plenty of expectations.
This was a trip coming after an invitation from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, but even the Tanzanian leader knew she was bringing a lot of diplomatic symbolism.
After two days, the two sides had vowed to remove barriers to trade and signed a number of deals to work on connecting infrastructure.
So what did we learn from the trip?
Suluhu’s leadership style is a departure from predecessor
President Suluhu’s style of leadership looks different from her predecessor’s abrasive and his-way-or-the-highway pushes. Nicknamed the bulldozer, the late John Pombe Magufuli stayed at home most of the time, initially impressed by targeting lazy and corrupt officials before he burnt most bridges with international partners.
When Dr Magufuli visited Kenya on his State visit in November 2016, it had been nearly a year since he had taken power in 2015. At the joint press conference then, he was hard-pressed to explain the distance in the EAC, saying he had been making private calls to President Uhuru Kenyatta to ensure relations were going on.
President Suluhu, on the other hand, seems to recognise that image and perception is everything. Rather than look inwards, she has visited neighbours to reassure them of business. She probably knows the best way of protecting Tanzania’s interests is to lure more Kenyan investments to top up on the estimated $1.7 billion Kenyan firms have pumped there. It is no wonder she told businesspeople in Nairobi that she is bringing a solution to compliment the freedom to do business, in an ingenious pun on her name and that of President Kenyatta.
Despite the perception, East African Community matters to Tanzania
President Suluhu has shown that the East African Community just matters to Tanzanians as it does to other members. In a joint communique, they said they will invest in the EAC, and urged other member states to pay up their membership and other obligatory fees. Records show South Sudan and Burundi have lagged behind, delaying the Community’s programmes.
Kenya and Tanzania had been paying on time. But there was always an air of irony in the way Tanzanians treated other East Africans. They host the headquarters of the EAC in Arusha, but have lagged behind implementing certain projects. They do not allow the common tourist visa and you cannot travel there with a national ID.
Between Kenya and Tanzania, there were always disagreements on tariffs and non-tariff barriers. At the moment, Kenya is supposed to start clearing maize stuck at the Namanga border following a directive from President Kenyatta. The maize had been blocked at the border after Kenyan officials argued that it did not meet sanitation conditions. The call on Tuesday though suggests that Tanzanians would want to remain in the EAC and help clean it, rather than frustrate it. No wonder, Suluhu’s first two trips have been to Uganda and Kenya.
EAC will survive by the mercy of bureaucrats
The promise to clear the barriers to trade was music to the ears of businesspeople. But the traders must know presidents are politicians who gauge the audience before making remarks. It would be awful if the leaders showed no desire to address the perennial non-tariff barriers. However, they also hinted that implementation will be undertaken by their bureaucrats. Traditionally, such directives have taken months to be enacted, or not at all.
Throughout Magufuli’ s presidency, a joint council of ministers known as the Joint Commission on Cooperation was almost dead, allowing officials to stick to their ruinous restrictions. It is these officials who still hold the key to smooth trade or rough seas ahead.
Women leaders could be antidotes for tense relations
Tanzania’s first female President may have unexpected and only became real by virtue of the law after President Magufuli died. But it could be the jackpot Tanzanians won.
Suluhu arrived with a women-dominated delegation and was met by Kenya’s female senior government officials. There was no pushing or hassling between security details as witnessed before when some male leaders touched down. It could be too soon to award marks, but it seems Tanzania’s foreign policy will be back on its course for small wins with neighbours without exchanging words. Perhaps it will influence voting patterns in the future as curious neighbours try to get closer to the feeling of being led by a woman in the modern times.
On Covid-19, Suluhu has retained portions of predecessor’s view
It was always expected that her presidency will depart from the predecessor, but few thought it can be fast. On Covid-19 in particular, she has tried to be a believer in science, has banned flights to India where new mutants emerged and now demands proof of negative test for arrivals. These were things Magufuli ignored and doubted testing kits and vaccines.
Suluhu though has retained some of those, albeit subtly. She created a committee to look into Covid-19, but the team’s identity was not publicised, nor their terms of reference indicated.
She is yet to order any vaccines and her administration is still not releasing figures on infections. These are things she must do if at all Tanzania will free itself from Covid-19 isolation.
Kenya already knows it is paying a penalty for Tanzania’s lacklustre reaction to the pandemic: UK imposed restrictions last month after claiming some travellers transiting from Tanzania had tested positive.
The two sides agreed to harmonise their policies and it is expected that spot testing will be introduced.