Towards Stronger Kenya-Tanzania Relations

The two-day state visit to Kenya by Tanzania’s President, Samia Suluhu Hassan that concluded on Wednesday May 5, 2021, marks a turning point to the diplomatic and bilateral trade relations between the two East African neighbors. The visit which came on the invitation of President Uhuru Kenyatta was President Hassan’s first official state visit since she ascended to office following the death of President Magufuli. During the visit, the two heads of state held diplomatic talks on among other things strengthening bilateral trade, fostering regional integration, and increasing economic opportunities within Kenya and Tanzania. The historic visit also saw the two heads of state hold a consultation forum for Kenya and Tanzania business community. It culminated in President Hassan’s address of a joint sitting of Parliament.

Historical Ties

Kenya and Tanzania share historical ties that are cultural, religious, and diplomatic in nature. Bilateral relations between Kenya and Tanzania can be traced to 1963 immediately after Kenya gained independence, with a brief cut in diplomatic ties in 1977 as ideological differences (capitalism in Kenya and socialism in Tanzania) led to the collapse of the East African Community (EAC). Despite the apparent differences in ideology, the two countries resumed ties in 1983 and have since maintained close ties although punctuated by instances of tense relations. The enduring commonalities between the two countries – hosting the world’s largest Swahili speaking populations, the shared border and natural resources – has ensured that they remain in constant awareness of each other and has necessitated mutual inter-dependence. Moreover, the re-establishment of the EAC in July 2000, with additional agreements on common customs procedures including a Common External Tariff (CET) and duty-free trade between members has significantly contributed to improving trade and overall bilateral relations between Kenya and Tanzania. Thus, the two countries have become strategic partners in many areas, particularly trade and investment, security (military), transport, education, agriculture, and energy.

Trade rows and Frosty Relations

Despite being key trading partners, with over 513 Kenyan investments in Tanzania worth Ksh 170 billion and trade volumes amounting to Ksh. 60.4 billion, the two countries have often run into conflict over work visas, taxes, checks at border points, and market access rights for items such as sugar, milk and dairy products which particularly escalate during the late President Magufuli’s reign. Tensions began in 2013, after Kenya marshalled Uganda and Rwanda into a ‘coalition of the willing (CoW)’ Agreement in which they initiated talks to cooperate on a raft of infrastructural and telecommunication projects including building a rail line and oil pipeline that would link the port of Mombasa to Kampala, Kigali and later to Juba in South Sudan, with the aim of invigorating trade within the East Africa’s Northern corridor. Tanzania immediately renounced the coalition terming it a contravention of Article 7(1)(e) of the EAC protocol but in which it saw itself sidelined. When President Magufuli came to office in 2015, the tensions escalated even further. In 2016, Magufuli negotiated and signed parallel agreements: an oil pipeline deal with Uganda and rail line construction with Rwanda and Burundi thereby jeopardizing the CoW alliance. A series of trade rows followed from 2017 through to 2019 that were marked by on and off harsh rhetoric, border closures, arbitrary arrests and protests. Further, the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated frosty relations leading to closure of borders and suspension of commercial flights due to disagreements over COVID-19 protocols, particularly, the lack of procedures and protocols to protect and manage the pandemic in Tanzania.

Renewing Friendly Relations

President Hassan’s state visit is set to renew and potentially strengthen good relations between Kenya and Tanzania, effectively stepping away from President Magufuli’s hard-line and assertive style. During the visit, the two Heads of State acknowledged that serious challenges have frustrated friendly relations between them and agreed to work together to advance better relations and strengthen ties through cooperation on issues of mutual interest. In reference to this, President Uhuru remarked “your visit has given us the opportunity to renew our relations and we will [work together] to ensure that our unity especially as East African nations and neighbors will continue to grow and be strengthened for the benefit of our people”. Substantively, the two Heads of State committed to developing harmonized protocols around COVID-19 management which has been a major source of tension over the past one year.

Reviving trade and Investment

The state visit is also set to re-ignite trade and economic cooperation. The two Heads of State pledged to renew the Joint Commission for Cooperation (JCC) between the two countries to address issues of trade by removing of barriers to trade and investment between the two states. Although Kenya remains one of the largest foreign investors in Tanzania and an importer of huge proportion of Tanzanian exports, trade between the two countries has often been strained by administrative and logistical challenges, leading to massive losses and disincentivizing investment, especially from the private sector. The pledge by the two Presidents to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers for traders is expected to provide a conducive environment for trade. To further enhance economic cooperation, the two Heads of State also pledged to develop cooperative projects aimed at improving their connectivity and hastening economic growth. Among others, these included the completion of One-stop Border Post, the construction of a 400-kilowatt power line from Singida to Kenya, the fast-tracking the completion of the Malindi-Lungalunga-Bagamoyo Road, as well as the construction of gas pipeline to run from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa for which the two Heads of State signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

Otieno O. Joel is a Researcher at the HORN Institute

Photo Credit: President Uhuru Kenyatta (R) and visiting Tanzania Head of State Samia Suluhu (L) Hassan in Kenya (Photo Credit: Presidential Service Communication Unit)

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