Is President Samia Suluhu the solution to the frosty EAC relations?

President Uhuru Kenyatta with Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of the United Republic of Tanzania at State House, Nairobi on May 04, 2021. [PSCU]

Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu’s two-day visit to Nairobi this week speaks of a leader who has hit the ground running. She has taken over an office with an in-tray in overflow, both with matters domestic and regional. If her visit to Nairobi is the sign of things to come, she has demonstrated that she is more than equal to the assignment. She gives the impression of someone who has arrived readymade for the challenges ahead. They are not simple challenges, however. East Africa is historically a diplomatic minefield, while Tanzania has a lot of pending tasks from past regimes.

In the region, President Suluhu’s nascent charm offensive might very well be the wake-up call that East Africa has been waiting for. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have grown up on a diplomatic diet that is rich in suspicion, mistrust and toxic sibling rivalry. They habitually come together for a season, only to disengage again. They have historically squandered great opportunities in needless cold wars. Vindictive trade practices and diplomatic faux pas have formed the mainstay of the region’s historical narrative, complete with intermittent border closures, or threats to close.

Can President Suluhu help to correct challenges that are as old as she is, at home and in the region? Will her charm and the goodwill it is attracting stay a meaningful reform course, or will it flash in a passing pan? These are the questions that will occupy pundits, in the wake of her successful visit to Kenya this week and a curtain raiser event in Kampala three weeks ago.

In Nairobi, she impressed her hosts with her astute focus on the great questions of the day, even as she relayed her messages with gracefulness, charisma and a pleasant sense of humour. She was courtly and stately, yet simple and easy. She is certainly a whiff of freshness and a welcome relief from the dour and noisy aspect that informs the region’s political class. Her endearing sangfroid is at once captivating and exemplary. Can these qualities be the transformational magic wand that leadership in her country and region crave?

The Tanzanian president was a little girl of three in June 1963, when the three East African states held the now forgotten East African Federation Meeting. The excitement of independence had infused the region with the thought that it could make quick steps towards becoming one country, federated into three semi-independent units. By the end of 1964, however, the dream had dried, and even died, on the lips of the founding leaders. What was left was a jerky relationship that has staggered on through the decades. It has mostly centred on uneasy trade relations and edgy movements of people. Every so often, something snaps and one side closes the border, or threatens to do so, through the decades.

In the independence decade, Tanzania was keen on the federation. Kenya and Uganda, however, were not so keen. They were worried about possible dilution, or even loss, of their national identities, which they considered more important than regional harmony. President Jomo Kenyatta told his countrymen in 1964 that the earlier talk of a federation had only been a ploy to make the British grant Kenya independence sooner. Tanzania had become independent on December 9, 1961, while Uganda got independence on October 9, 1962. Kenya’s independence was floated as the last step delaying the journey towards the East African Federation. The course changed after Kenya’s uhuru.

Her Excellency President Samia Suluhu Hassan of the United Republic of Tanzania addresses a joint sitting of Kenya's bicameral Parliament.

Inspiring messages

Every so often, ever since, yearnings of closer ties are expressed and cursory initiatives taken, only for them to go into atrophy. They speak of what are now generations of suspicion and mistrust, which, hopefully, President Suluhu’s inspiring messages in Nairobi could help to stem. She has embarked on her new tour of duty with delightful, promising verve and credence. Her easy charm and charisma won her free flow of goodwill from the Kenyan Executive, legislators and citizens alike. She was in her element when she addressed the joint Houses of the Senate and the National Assembly on Wednesday. Her messaging makes for the kind of fresh foundation and energy that the region could welcome and build upon.

At the same time, Tanzania’s sixth president evokes memories of the early days of Kenya’s Nyayo years. Like President Suluhu, Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, arrived in August 1978 in the wake of a national tragedy. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta became the first president in the region to die in office. The vice president stepped in for a constitutional 90-day period and went on to become the president soon after. Suluhu has constitutionally replaced President John Pombe Magufuli, who died on March 17.

Her visit to Nairobi, as well as her activities at home, demonstrate that like Moi before her, Suluhu has embarked on a reform agenda that should mark her out as her own person. Again, like Moi, she is going about defining herself without causing consternation. She has not denounced her predecessor, or derided his policies and the things that marked him out. Like Moi, she states that she is walking in her predecessor’s footsteps, even as she pushes through a reform agenda.

Regrettably, in the Moi case, national unease overtook goodwill within two years, opening the gateway to troubled times that are now a lot of history. Will Suluhu take lessons from Moi and avoid the pitfalls that come with taking goodwill for granted? Conversely, can her country give her time and space? There is a need to recognise that transformational change is not an overnight affair. Will her country give her ample room, without succumbing to feelings of frustration and sinking into whining and grumbling?

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of the United Republic of Tanzania address a joint press briefing at State House, Nairobi on May 04, 2021. [PSCU]

One-man rule

At home, Tanzanians elected to bury their heads in the sand over President Magufuli’s overbearing style. There were challenges with the media, civil society, the political opposition and the legal fraternity. Over the past six years, these four areas have had to engage in self-censorship over virtually every key decision and move they have made, courtesy of a ruthless legal and regulatory environment. As soon as he got in office, Magufuli banned live coverage of parliamentary proceedings. A number of FM radio stations were banned, while quoting of foreign media reports was outlawed. For all practical purposes and intents, the opposition was outlawed as was alternative view even in his own Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). His was a one-man rule by decree regime. You toed the straight and narrow line, or met presidential wrath and fiat.

New media laws were enacted, muzzling media freedom. The 2015 Cybercrimes Act came into being as did the Media Service Act of 2016, reintroducing the crime of sedition. Eric Kabendera, renowned for his thorough investigative journalism, was incarcerated for seven months. He was only released after unremitting international pressure. Azory Gwanda, another investigative journalist, disappeared without trace after arrest by the police. Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi told journalists that Gwanda was dead. He gave no details and that is now history. Music makers and other performing artistes, too, got a taste of President Magufuli’s fury. Rapper Emmanuel Elibariki was arrested after his compositions were deemed to criticise the president.

President Suluhu has embarked on a cautious righting of some of these wrongs, without taking a condemnatory or self-righteous approach. Her partial opening up of the media space and freeing of political prisoners have been welcomed, even as more breathing space is anticipated. Equally has been the announcement of new measures of dealing with the new coronavirus challenge. President Magufuli was a corona skeptic to the very end, a matter that tried relations between his country and its neighbours. When Kenya intensified border control because of mounting cases of infection in the border zones, Magufuli threatened to close the border altogether.

President Suluhu, therefore, has a heavy thawing exercise to undertake at home and away. She takes seriously the symbiosis that the region needs, as was made manifest by accepting President Uhuru Kenyatta’s invitation. The Tanzanian president remarked that there were upwards of 500 Kenyan investors in her country, with investments worth Sh170 billion, and employing 51,000 Tanzanians. Conversely, some 30 Tanzanian firms have invested Sh19 billion in Kenya. They employ over 2,000 Kenyans. These are relations that could be developed further, for the enrichment of the two countries. Yet the story of Kenya and Tanzania and indeed that of the entire region has been one of reversals and negations, as well as regression and missed opportunities. At independence, East Africa inherited the East African Common Services Organisation (EACSO) from the British.

The organisation had been fashioned after the European Economic Common Market of the time. It required nothing beyond political goodwill, good governance in member states and civic stability to swing the region into a major economic take-off. But, the founders of the three republics dropped the ball, even as other nations eagerly yearned to join the East African club.

When EASCO became East African Community in 1967, the three countries already had common postal and telecommunications services, the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, the East African Court of Appeal, East African Development Bank, East African Airways and a common tax authority, to mention just a few key establishments. The East African Legislative Assembly took over from the Central Legislative Assembly of the colonial times. Despite the suspicions that led to dropping of the common currency and the demise of the East African Currency Board in 1965–66, things were still looking up. This fact is lent credence by the reality that soon after the community treaty of June 1967, five other countries applied for admission. They included Somalia, Zambia, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Kenya’s more developed economy has always been the main challenge to good relations in the region. This has been intensified by a certain baffling Kenyan slant towards scorn and pomposity among political leaders retained to work with their regional counterparts. From the very start, Kenya’s three representatives in the Ministerial Committee of 1966 – Tom Mboya, James Gichuru and Bruce McKenzie – approached issues with a snooty attitude. Mboya’s “man-eat-nothing” snide remark against Tanzania has often been wrongly attributed to Charles Njonjo. President Nyerere had by this time given up on the hope for closer ties with Kenya, rebuking it as “a man-eat-man society”, for which he got the riposte of “man-eat-nothing”.

But, quite early in the day, President Kenyatta was worried about the socialist leanings that Tanzania and Uganda began exhibiting soon after independence. When China’s Prime Minister Zhou En Lai visited Tanzania in June 1963, he shocked Kenya’s new political elite, as well as the departing British, with his remark that East Africa was ripe for a socialist revolution. He contributed significantly to throwing the region into the suspicious mode. Things got worse when, in 1965, a cache of 75 tones of firearms from China was seized in Kenya, on its way to Uganda, accompanied by President Milton Obote’s troops. Uganda apologised for the fiasco. But the seed of suspicion was in the ground.

But perhaps the thorniest issue remains, as in the old days, an economic climate that has placed Kenya ahead. Part of this is a factor of Kenya’s early embracing of Western multinational companies as direct investors, while Tanzania and Uganda resisted them as part of what they called ‘war against capitalism as a form of imperialism and neocolonialism.’ Kenya appeared to thrive while Uganda and Tanzania dithered in penury and abjectness.

Efforts to address what the other countries have since seen as imbalance, on the other hand, have tended to generate nervousness in the Kenyan business and political communities. It was such suspicions and nervousness that led to the collapse of the old community in the period 1975–77.

Flashes of goodwill

Each country seized the community’s assets in its territory. Regional authorities and institutions gave birth to local ones in Kenya, while in Uganda and Tanzania they mostly died with the community. Tanzania closed the border with Kenya and shut down EAC offices in Arusha on August 1, 1977. Diplomatic relations were cut off between the two countries, until 1983.

Flashes of goodwill have always remained, however. In 1971, Tanzania rebuffed Kenyan coup makers who sought President Nyerere’s support in a scheme to overthrow the Kenyatta government. Nyerere arrested and handed them over to the Kenya government. In 1982, Tanzania returned three coup makers who had commandeered an air force plane and sought safe haven in Tanzania. Dar-es-Salaam was also instrumental in the mediated talks that restored Kenya to order after the ignominy of the 2007 elections. Besides, presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa were the new sheriffs in town in the fresh initiative that restored the East African Community over the period 1993–2000.

Going forward, suspicions that have bedeviled the union in recent years need to be overcome. President Suluhu told Nairobi legislators that she was in the country on that mission. Her refrain throughout was, “We are one people, we cannot do without one another.” Will East Africa pick up the challenge, all the way to Kigali, Bujumbura and Juba, the late entrants into the union, and the intrigues?

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