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Corona threatens to cut fabric tying Kenya, Tanzania

By Moses Michira | May 20th 2020
President Uhuru Kenyatta hands a key to Tanzanian President John Magufuli during the official opening of the Namamga One Stop Border Post in 2018. [PSCU]

Covid-19 is reviving frosty relations and bottled-up rivalry between two of the biggest regional economies in East Africa.

A decision by Kenya to close her borders with Tanzania has irked President John Magufuli's administration, and with it all but scuttling decades-old efforts to build a regional bloc.

President Magufuli has downplayed the impact of the pandemic compared to the rest of the East African region, where partial lockdowns have been enforced. He snubbed a teleconference of the regional leaders, in what could be interpreted as breaking ranks of a trading bloc that previously entertained what is increasingly a mirage of using a common currency in just three years.

In contrast, President Uhuru Kenyatta extended the severe interventions, including the closure of borders, only to be met with the unprecedented response from Magufuli. It is likely, considering past diplomatic spats between the two neighbours, that the supposed cordial relations may actually be cosmetic. Diplomats are working overtime to stop the imminent fall-out, which is playing out, after Tanzania banned the entry of Kenyans into her territory this week.

Dan Kazungu, the Kenyan ambassador to Dar-es-Salaam, yesterday addressed a Press conference intended to calm the soaring animosity, citing the common enemy as the coronavirus.

“Kenya can never be enemies with Tanzania, only that there are inconveniences that have come with fighting the pandemic,” said the diplomat.

In his message to the media, Kazungu said he was delivering a message from President Uhuru Kenyatta, "who perceives Tanzania as a brother rather than a neighbour”. He said Uhuru planned to visit Magufuli, but the said trip had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are not enemies, our only enemy is coronavirus, which would explain why President Kenyatta was the first leader to come here on a State visit...without the pandemic. It was in President Kenyatta’s plan to come over here for a lengthy stay to celebrate with you,” Kazungu said in Kiswahili.

He was optimistic the urgent discussions by respective foreign ministries would restore tranquility and possibly ease the soaring tension by end of the week. The diplomat sounded apologetic, saying no Kenyan wished any harm on their neighbour even though it was clear the repeated run-ins illustrated some deep-rooted contempt.

No love lost

Tanzanian officials had, only hours earlier, spared no words in lecturing Kenya, possibly delivering Magufuli’s displeasure about the closed borders. Martin Shigela, the Regional Commissioner for Tanga, which extends to the common border at Namanga, on Monday directed his officers to ensure no Kenyan entered Tanzania. He was protesting the decision to hold cargo and truck crew at the border points for days on end as they waited for test results for the coronavirus.

“We cannot have products and our people staying here for days...we cannot continue like this,” said Mr Shigela.

He even accused Kenya of exporting coronavirus across the borders, claiming some 19 positive cases had been intercepted at the border and stopped from entering Tanzania. Shigela isolated Kenya among the regional bloc, saying citizens of the other states in the region were free to transit Tanzania via any border points, including Namanga.

“Anyone from Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, the DRC, Uganda be allowed to enter, but for Kenyans, who are making our life difficult, do not let them in. I also urge Tanzanians to stop buying any merchandise from Kenya,” said the Regional Commissioner.  

Shigela was still in charge three years ago when Tanzania took the unprecedented step to auction 1,325 head of cattle that had supposedly breached the borders in search of pasture.

It would be a major cause for protest from the Kenyan Foreign minister, but the cries were ignored, with the Kenyan government opting to compensate the affected livestock owners belonging to the Maa community, which straddles either side of the border.

That was besides following that up with the burning of some 6,400 day-old chicks, which had been purchased in Nairobi by Tanzania farmers. Months before, Tanzania had refused to support Kenya’s candidate Amina Mohamed for the African Union Commission chairperson position, despite the supposed brotherhood, effectively exposing the disdain.

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