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Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan can reinvigorate the EAC

By Ken Opalo | April 2nd 2021

The presidency of Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan (pictured) presents an exciting opportunity to reinvigorate the East African Community (EAC). With a population of more than 180 million people, EAC has enormous economic potential. It is also arguably Africa’s most advanced regional economic bloc, with a well-institutionalised secretariat in Arusha, complete with legislative and judicial arms. Were it to be firing on all cylinders the EAC would be Africa’s most important economic bloc. The lull in activity due to COVID-19 presents an opportunity to rethink the bloc’s future, especially in light of the leadership transition in Tanzania. A synchronised regional agenda for post-COVID recovery has the potential to boost economic output at a much faster pace than if individual countries went their own way.

President Hassan’s ascent to power is important because the bloc’s success has historically hinged on the personal relationship between members’ heads of state. In this regard, perhaps no other bilateral relationship is as important as that between Kenya and Tanzania. Since its founding, the ideological and economic competition between Kenya and Tanzania have defined the evolution of the EAC. It was the fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere that sank the original EAC in 1977.

It took more than two decades to mend relations and restart the EAC. Presently, close cooperation between Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Samia Hassan can be what it takes to take the region to the next level. On account of their combined population and economic output, Kenya and Tanzania are the de facto anchor countries of the EAC. The two countries are also the “gateway” to the region, the rest of the EAC’s members being landlocked.

The challenges facing the EAC are multitude. Beyond differences in the handling of the Covid pandemic, there are questions related to trade agreements with third parties, the nature of continued future integration (especially with regard to labor mobility), cross-border trade in agriculture and natural gas, competition over transport corridors to the Great Lakes region, among other infrastructure investments.

How Kenya and Tanzania handle these issues will determine the EAC’s future. For the sake of the over 180 million citizens of the Community, one hopes that all interested parties will see the wisdom in good-faith cooperation towards open borders to facilitate trade and other exchanges among our peoples.

Kenya is the offending party when it comes with trade agreements with third parties, having chosen to go it alone with trade negotiations with the United Kingdom and the United States. On its part, Tanzania has been the biggest obstacle on the question of deeper integration and cross-border trade. To compound matters, the two countries risk over-investing in transportation and logistics infrastructure as they compete to be the gateway to the wider Central African region.

If Kenya and Tanzania can find solutions to their bilateral sticking points, it is very likely that the rest of the region will follow along.

President Hassan is the ideal candidate to lead the quest for a more integrated region. Beyond the symbolism, she could also bring a different perspective to the bloc’s relations and achieve very visible quick wins in terms of regional agreements in the early stages of her presidency.

In preparing for the post-pandemic recovery, policy makers must put everything on the table. To that end, stronger regional cooperation within the EAC should be a strong pillar of the recovery agenda.

The writer is a professor at Georgetown University  


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