New president John Magufuli’s determination to transform his country from regional laggard to integration champion has borne early fruit. But Dar es Salaam must take advantage of the recent momentum to challenge for regional dominance. Seven months into his tenure Jenerali Ulimwengu assess his approach.
Only a semester after he assumed office as president of the United Republic of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli looks like a man who is determined to significantly alter the balance of forces in the East African Community (EAC), a regional grouping comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
Magufuli took over from Jakaya Kikwete in November of last year, and immediately showed himself to be markedly different in the way he handled domestic issues such as corruption, tax evasion, absenteeism and wasteful foreign travel on the part of government officials.
In his short period in office, he has sacked, suspended and/or placed under investigation individuals who are suspected of graft and laxity, and has taken dramatic, eye-catching measures, such as when he cancelled national independence celebrations in December and directed that the funds set aside for the fête be used for more pressing issues. Because of his forceful and workaday style, he has earned the nickname “bulldozer”.
At the level of the EAC, too, Magufuli has made a mark. At the time of his takeover late last year, Tanzania looked like an increasingly isolated member of the community, perceived by its neighbours to be the laggard applying brakes to faster integration of the regional bloc.
Under what came to be dubbed as the “Coalition of the Willing” (CoW), Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda decided to undertake infrastructural programmes that did not need Tanzania’s participation, based on the so-called northern corridor. This would include roads, railways and oil pipelines, and one obvious winner was Kenya with its ports of Mombasa and Lamu.
Enter Magufuli, and all that changes. Taking over from his globe-trotting predecessor, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, the new man in State House adopted a stay-at-home stance, even refusing to attend what would have been his first African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, the forum at which newly elected heads of state make their arrival known to their peers.
Instead, he reserved his first-ever external trip for an official visit to Rwanda in April, where he officiated at the 22nd anniversary of the genocide. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame hailed Magufuli as someone whose election had been “very refreshing” for the region. This was a far cry from the chilly relations between the two countries when Kikwete was still president.
In effect, Kikwete and Kagame had done little to conceal their displeasure with each other since the former had suggested, in Addis Ababa in 2013, that the Rwandan government open up a dialogue with the rebel FDLR in the east of Congo, an idea that is anathema to Kigali.
Magufuli’s Rwanda visit was also marked by the opening of a one-stop border at the town of Rusumo, aimed at funnelling trade and developing infrastructural links between the two countries. At the same time, Kagame and his guest agreed to develop the so-called Central Corridor with the strengthening and extension of the railway line from Dar es Salaam through Isaka to Kigali, which has the advantage of being shorter by 25% than the Mombasa alternative.
As all this was happening, Uganda, on the cusp of commercial oil production, made its own decision favouring Magufuli and Tanzania by announcing that it was pulling out of an earlier agreement to build an oil pipeline through Kenya; it would now seek to use Tanzania’s north-eastern port of Tanga. Although this will necessarily involve heavy investment in infrastructural development, the route is deemed by Uganda to be shorter and more economic in the long run.
The sudden volte-face by Rwanda and Uganda, both members of the so-called CoW, has left Kenya reeling and disoriented. Some commentators in the country have suggested that the new developments have put paid to Kenya’s economic hegemony over the region, though some suggested that the new resurgence by Tanzania was a welcome development which has added a fourth leg to the CoW – making it more balanced and less exclusionist.
The fast thawing of relations between Tanzania and Rwanda, and the realignment with Uganda are seen in some quarters as a natural product of the fact that Magufuli, hailing from north-west Tanzania, finds cultural comfort and affinity among people of the Great Lakes zone whose languages he has some knowledge of, as he displayed at the last EAC summit. With Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, he can easily pepper his speech with some Kinyankole and Kinyarwanda to spice up any occasion. Magufuli will have to weave his new treasure trove around a strategy to grow the economy, lay down an industrial base and create jobs.
Real or imagined, Uhuru aiding one candidate over another may remain in the realm of speculation and conjecture. What is common knowledge, however, is that East African politicians have often had election-time favourites across their borders. Magufuli, for instance, is a close friend of Kenyan opposition chief, Raila Odinga, although there is little suggestion the two have ever engaged in cross-border politicking one way or the other. On the other hand, the seemingly cool relations with Uhuru Kenyatta have been explained by what some observers believe was Uhuru’s preference for Magufuli’s opponents in last year’s election. It is indeed recorded that a number of Kenyan IT specialists were on the technical team of the opposition, but there was no evidence they were acting at the behest of their government or Uhuru himself.
Magufuli will have to reexamine these relations even as his country reaps economic benefits from new alliances and rearrangements. As current chair of the EAC, he must demonstrate evenhandedness and fairness in getting all the member countries to pull together in search of closer integration. To achieve this, he will want to adopt a more consultative approach at regional level rather than the cavalier decision-making style he has demonstrated at home.
The new realignments on the infrastructural development front look certain to favour Tanzania, taking a slice of the East African pie away from Kenya. Kenya has always been the economic powerhouse of the EAC, and seeing herself upended in this manner has rankled with major economic players in the capital, Nairobi.
Even so, bringing to fruition the new benefits Tanzania seems to have won will not be a cakewalk, and will rely heavily on what Magufuli does with the age-old problems besetting Tanzania’s ports. Tanga is hardly operational, and needs major investments to revamp it. Dar es Salaam has always been crippled by inefficiency, laxity and pilfering, which have often put off Tanzania’s eight landlocked neighbours who want to use it.
Can Magufuli put it to rights? Maybe. But much will depend on his ability to rein in his greedy port officials and eradicate the ills that have stymied the Dar port for so long. Finally, he will have to weave his newfound treasure trove around a comprehensive strategy to grow the economy, lay down an industrial base and create jobs to reduce poverty. He will need to craft a vision.