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The tale of two neighbors and why Kenya must make smart economic moves

By Francis Karugu | May 15th 2018

Kenya has two neighbors- Ethiopia and Tanzania- that are worlds apart. Coincidentally, one of these neighbors is in the north and the other to the south. It seems like an act of God how these neighbors are worlds apart in their attitude towards Kenya. Let us start with Ethiopia.

Of all the neighbours Kenya shares borders with, Ethiopia is the most genial since pre-independence days. Last February, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned and the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, appointed Abiy Ahmed to replace him. Interestingly, and perhaps what went unnoticed, is that Dr Abiy Ahmed chose Kenya for his first foreign visit as premier. Now, in diplomatic speak, the first country that a head of government or state chooses to visit first points to reverence with which his administration treats that country.

This should tell Kenyans how Ethiopia looks at us. An analysis of the two countries’ relations shows that despite change of leadership in Kenya and Ethiopia, and despite the fact that the two countries had different colonial backgrounds and ideologies, the Kenya-Ethiopia relations remain good. Perhaps these relations were informed by circumstances. Kenya received both material and moral support from His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie during the fight for independence.

Show respect

When, in 1974, a military conspiracy by the unholy union of Aman Mikael Andom and Mengistu Haile Mariam deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, it was Kenya’s turn to return the favor.

The freedom fighters who were opposed to the military junta’s despotism found a safe haven in Kenya. All along, Ethiopia has gone out of its way to show respect for Kenya. The tragedy of our political leadership is that it has not taken advantage of this accommodation. Why, for instance, is Ethiopia not Kenya’s biggest trading partner? Ethiopia is more lenient than any other neighbor when it comes to relations, both economic and political.

Given that Ethiopia is a landlocked country after losing the Eritrean territory in 1994, Kenya can only blame herself for letting Djibouti be the gateway to her friend in the north by sea. Kenya’s GDP per capita may be higher than that of Ethiopia, but Ethiopia’s growth is more inclusive than that of Kenya, partly because the former does not allow a small cabal of oligarchs to dominate government tenders and monopolise levers of the economy.

Ethiopia is not a bandit economy like Kenya. In a decade’s time, the purchasing power outside Addis Ababa will match that of urban areas, and with double Kenya’s population, Ethiopia will be a gold mine for consumerism. Kenya has not positioned herself to take advantage of this situation as a gateway to Ethiopia; as government officials swivel in the short-termism that only benefits the chosen few oligarchs and the cheerleader cabal of gatekeepers in high offices.

Adolescent girl

Switching gears to Tanzania, it is the complete converse with Ethiopia. Tanzania’s attitude towards Kenya can be likened to that of a jilted adolescent girl. Tanzania behaves as if Kenya stole her birthright. But what is inexplicable is why Kenya invests so much time with a disinclined neighbour. No country has frustrated the East African Communities initiatives towards economic integration than Tanzania.

Tanzania has adopted an inconceivable and mindless protectionist posture that one wonders what her motive is. During Uhuru Kenyatta’s second inauguration, Tanzanian president John Pombe Magufuli snubbed the event and opted to stay at home inspecting boreholes in the villages. What is startling is the amount of time and resources Kenyaspends trying to salvage the nonexistent diplomatic relations with Tanzania.

It is true Kenya had a head start in the 1960s, but Kenya is not responsible for Tanzania’s choice of an indolent and impracticable economic programme that was Ujamaa. The only achievement Ujamaa delivered to Tanzania was brooding the cult of personality that President Magufuli relishes today.

With an EAC neighbor like Tanzania, the chances of strengthening the common trading bloc and integration are a mirage, to say nothing of a political federation. Kenya’spolicy makers should re-look our diplomatic priorities and relegate Tanzania into a hostile neighbor, and elevate Ethiopia to the position the former occupies.

Today, Kenyans move in and out of Ethiopia without any hitches, a far cry from what happens in Tanzania with its mindless isolationism. At this rate, Tanzania is well on its way to becoming a pariah state, now that there will be a vacuum left by North Korea. It is time to harness the potential that a better relationship with Ethiopia offers Kenya.

Mr Karugu is a strategy and analytics consultant based in Nairobi. [email protected]


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