How President Suluhu ’s Covid-19 Game helps Tanzania’s regional charm offensive

President Samia Suluhu Hassan


Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan on Wednesday received her first COVID-19 vaccination jab, reflecting her readiness to take on the pandemic whose existence in the country, her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli had denied. 

She also announced plans for mass vaccination of Tanzanians as well as updating the nation and the world about new cases and deaths.  On Thursday the country announced 508 new cases. 

This new approach to the pandemic is also a positive note regarding the regional integration process.   Last year, Late President Magufuli had banned Kenyan flights when Nairobi directed that Tanzanian travellers to Kenya would have to be quarantined for 14 days in Kenya.

Magufuli had earlier avoided an EAC heads of states virtual meeting on a regional approach to tackling the spread of coronavirus especially across borders, and this affected implementation of the tracking of cargo and truck drivers across borders.   

President Hassan’s approach brings new hope that this and other regional initiatives could now be implemented more easily. She has also embarked on what could be described as a charm offensive, reaching out to the different countries in the region.   

Her latest was two weeks ago when she concluded a two-day state visit to Burundi where she signed eight agreements with her host, President Evariste Ndayishimiye.   

The two presidents are coming from relatively the same recent background, as the two countries have over time been kept out of the developments surrounding the regional integration of East Africa, by their leaders. Suluhu Hassan became president as per the laws, following the death of Magufuli in March this year, having been his Vice President.

Ndayishimiye, was president-elect waiting to be sworn in when Pierre Nkurunziza died, leading to the rushed inauguration of the new leader. Both presidents are suspected to have died of COVID-19.

But the two countries have had similarities in recent years regarding regional integration affairs. Burundi, for example, had not been represented by the president at the Heads of States Summits since 2016. This was attributed to two main reasons, one being that the country was not satisfied with the way the EAC was approaching the Burundi political crisis that arose from Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term.  

The other seemed a protest against the annual fees payable by states to the EAC which Burundi wanted to be decided according to each country’s economic size, not a uniform fee. Tanzania Meanwhile, despitefully attending most of the summits, has been more concerned about its own economic progress, as opposed to the EAC Economic integration.  

For about a decade or more, the leaders of Tanzania have preferred to deal with individual countries depending on an economic opportunity available, which economist Dr Fred Muhumuza referred to as bilateral integration, as opposed to regional integration.

Tanzania, for example, under President Jakaya Kikwete, declined to join the East African Single Tourist Visa, and this led to the creation of the so-called Coalition-of-the-Willing approach to some regional initiatives, following the agreement by Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda to continue with it.  This died out following tensions between Uganda and Rwanda which climaxed in Rwanda’s closure of their common border that has now been closed for almost two years.

Others included the EAC Passport, the One Network Area aimed at integrating the operations of the telecommunications industry in the region, as well as the signing of the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. Analysts attribute Tanzania’s new approach to two main issues, one being the ‘Big Brother Syndrome” and the apparent fight for supremacy with Kenya and, to a lesser extent, Uganda. 

There are also historical factors like the ownership of the Kilimanjaro (tourism) area and also the social, political, and polarised economic ideologies at the formation of the two countries, where socialism was adopted by Tanzania, while Kenya was entrenched capitalism. 

Tanzania’s approach has several times not gone down well with other partner states, an example being the East African Crude Oil Pipeline Project, which was supposed to be routed through Kenya before President Magufuli made a last-minute intervention. He offered more favourable terms like transportation tariffs, quick timeframes since land acquisition in Tanzania would be easier, as well as a more secure environment.

Kenya then withdrew from regional oil industry initiatives and decided to develop her industry solely, including deploying road tankers to transport the crude instead of building a pipeline.  The other point of interest had been the fight for the transit goods market which Kenya has dominated till now, with more than 80 per cent of the region’s imports and exports going through Mombasa Port.

In recent times, however, Tanzania has launched efforts to sway importers and transports from Mombasa and opt for Dar-Es-Salaam and Tanga ports, by offering lower tariffs, improving infrastructure at the port and along the way, as well as promising Ugandan better security for their goods. 

Her visit to Kenya six weeks after taking office was seen as a move to mend fences with the country as soon as possible, following nasty incidents between them in the preceding two years.  

These included President John Magufuli’s approval of auctioning off thousands of head of cattle seized from Kenyan herders in the Kilimanjaro and Mara areas, while thousands of chicks were burnt alive allegedly for not going through legal procedures.

The visit led to the normalization of flights between the two countries, which had been disrupted after Kenya put covid 19 restrictions on Tanzanians entering the country. President Uhuru Kenyatta immediately announced a waiver of work permits for Tanzanians wishing to work in Kenya, while President Hassan promised to reciprocate by pushing for the amendment of the laws soon.  

Prior to the visit, President Hassan convened the Joint Permanent Commission (JPC) of the two countries to discuss bilateral trade ties.   The commission has been snubbed during President Magufuli for five years. Earlier, in April, Hassan had visited Uganda three weeks into her presidency to conclude vital agreements on the oil and gas sector projects, continuing with the seemingly high interest by Tanzania in Uganda’s oil.

She is yet to visit Rwanda, which apparently went into a kind of seclusion following the closure of its border with Uganda in early 2019. However, she has held talks with Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta.

Rwandan, who had delivered a special message from President Paul Kagame, on the speedy implementation of the Regional Rusumo Falls hydroelectric project and the standard gauge railway (SGR). While in Burundi, Hassan and Ndayishimye signed eight memoranda of understanding on bilateral cooperation on the holding of political and diplomatic consultations; developments in the mining sector and cooperation in the energy sector. 

Other agreements touched on the teaching of Kiswahili in Burundi and French in Tanzania, the cooperation in the health sector, transfer of detainees, promotion of agriculture and the fisheries industry. This charm offensive around the region has created renewed hope that Tanzania, the largest country by population and size, and also the second-largest economy in the region, will go a long way in boost the speed of economic development for the region.


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