How bureaucrats could make or break renewed Kenya-Tanzania relations

Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan and Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta have a word during the Kenya-Tanzania Business Forum at Serena hotel in Nairobi on May 5, 2021. 

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The trip had been largely expected to be a symbolic relaunch of relations and officials in Nairobi did admit changes in policy were dependent on the personal relationship of the two leaders.

Kenyan and Tanzanian officials will begin implementing decisions reached this week in Nairobi when President Samia Suluhu made her maiden State Visit to Kenya, indicating early fruits of thawing relations.

In Nairobi, government officials told the Nation they will obey the orders to start working on projects the two leaders agreed on, targeting easing of barriers to trade.

Kenya’s Trade Principal Secretary, Mr Johnson Weru, said Nairobi was already drafting letters of intent to send to Tanzania so timelines can be drawn.

“We were given the marching orders. We have no reason not to obey. We are ready to go,” Mr Weru told the Nation.

“We are going to agree on the agenda to resolve these issues as soon as possible. We are ready to discuss them,” he added, referring to non-tariff barriers.

The two leaders vowed to improve cooperation in sectors such as trade and investment, mining, energy, livestock, transport, defence and security, including in combating terrorism and transnational organised crimes, “for the mutual benefit of the two countries and their peoples,” according to a communique issued on Wednesday.

They signed an MoU on Natural Gas Transport Project to Kenya, agreed to harmonise health certifications for Covid-19, ease immigration rules and plan a main highway from Malindi to Bagamoyo.

“We have agreed to continue addressing some of the challenges especially non-tariffs barriers that keep cropping up at our border points,” President Suluhu said at a joint press conference in Nairobi.

“We agreed that those challenges need to go and directed that our Joint Commission on Cooperation should be sitting regularly to resolve these issues,” she added referring to bilateral council of ministers which hasn’t met in five years.

Suluhu addresses Kenya's Parliament

Affordable energy

President Uhuru Kenyatta saw the gas pipeline project as useful for Kenya in seeking affordable energy “to ensure that our industries can access cheaper energy that is also environmentally friendly in our country".

Vowing to renew relations, President Kenyatta told journalists Nairobi was willing “to go far so as to strengthen our historical and beneficial relations between our two peoples.”

The trip had been largely expected to be a symbolic relaunch of relations and officials in Nairobi did admit changes in policy were dependent on the personal relationship of the two leaders.

“I think it’s fair to say that the State visit was a watershed event of political, economic and cultural dimensions. It signaled the further deepening of Kenya’s relations with Tanzania, a country whose historical, cultural, linguistic, and economic bonds with Kenya all the deepest of any nation,” said Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

“It also deepens the fraternal relationship between our two leaders in a way that promises even greater prosperity for the two countries. The symbiotic relationship between the two countries is a cause for celebration as it is the root of peaceful coexistence, economic growth and prosperity and the further integration of our EAC community.”

Role of bureaucrats

Observers, though, argued that the pace of key changes, or even whether the implementation happens at all, will depend on the political will and the adoption by each side’s bureaucrats.

Leonard Wanyama, coordinator of the East African Tax and Governance Network and vice chair of the International Relations Society of Kenya, said the trip by President Suluhu was crucial to renewing ties.

But both sides must deal with “nationalist hardliners” in their ranks, who still lament about the initial collapse of the East African Community (EAC), he added.

“Movement and interactions across EAC borders tend to move faster than bureaucratic fiat. However, high level political discord tends to increase disruptions in regional integration,” he told the Nation.

“Technocrats are the implementers of policy and gatekeepers of entrenched interests, so there's bound to be episodes of tensions plus reversals as old orders try to fit into new spaces or hold fort.

Following this diplomatic reset, with pressure to deliver from the Kenyan and Tanzanian executives, plus demands from citizens of the two countries at the bottom to access gains from recent declarations are likely to quickly rise. Officialdom will have to come up with solutions very fast.

According to him, the Tanzanian leader's openness has now placed the ball in Kenya’s court, to reciprocate and implement the moves fast.

Mr Weru said Kenya had asked the business community to provide a list of non-tariff trade barriers they have experienced in dealing with Tanzania.

The list was long: Immigration conditions and work permit fees, mismatch in Covid-19 certificates, levies on cigarettes, truck blockade and levies, mismatch in quality standaridisation, refusal to accept professionals from Kenya such as engineers and lawyers and levies on coffee plus hygiene conditions and health on animal products.

The barriers were imposed, and Kenya retaliated, in spite of certain clauses in the EAC protocol.

Uhuru and Suluhu address joint press conference

Systems clean-up

Dismas Mokua, a political risk analyst for cross-border trade in Nairobi, said both sides should be tougher by removing from office officials who won’t support bilateral trade policies.

“Kenya and Tanzania's bilateral arrangement must be anchored on cooperation rather than competition. Competition will kill the substance of bilateral trade. This is how both Kenya and Tanzania can benefit from globalisation - markets and production,” he told the Nation.

“Both President Kenyatta and President Suluhu must translate their intention to remove all non-tariff barriers into tangible interventions. Failure to do so means the Suluhu State visit will remain a PR event - all sizzle and no steak.”

Tanzania is traditionally one of Kenya’s biggest trading partners in Africa, worth about Sh45 billion a year in volume of trade between them.

Some 513 companies from Kenya have invested in Tanzania with $1.7 billion worth of capital and employ some 51,000 Tanzanians. On the other hand, 30 Tanzanian firms have made investments worth Sh19 billion in Kenya and employ at least 2,600 Kenyans.

With tensions between them, however, issues of work permits and other targeted restrictions have made it harder for Kenyans to do business in Tanzania.

President Suluhu vowed to reverse the trend.