For his no-holds barred war on inept and corrupt government officials, Tanzanian President John Magufuli earned the moniker “Bulldozer” soon after he was elected into office a year ago.
That heavy equipment, like an elephant, takes a while to turn and President Magufuli has kept diplomacy watchers waiting for some signal on the direction he was likely to take, foremost on mending the evident but often denied fractious relations between Dar es Salaam and other East Africa Community capitals with the exception of Bujumbura.
Until his first official visit to Rwanda 10 months into his regime, President Magufuli had focused on domestic matters, with reforms meant to rid bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption top of his mind. Cargo clearance at the port of Dar es Salaam improved, Tanzania Revenue Authority collections increased and verification of invoices from government suppliers became stricter.
While at it, the president delegated attendance of key international events including the World Trade Organisation Ministerial and the Tokyo International Conference on Africa Development (TICAD) both held in Nairobi, adding to the feeling that all was not well between the two neighbours.
Not surprisingly, reports that President Magufuli would be on a three-day state visit to Kenya last week proved a big talking point on social media in the two countries. “The visit by President Magufuli has opened a new chapter in strengthening of the bilateral and brotherly relations between our two countries, something that will help in deepening regional integration,” said Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In a curtain-raiser to Magufuli’s arrival, Kenya’s State House spokesman Manoah Esipisu said the two presidents would address salient differences such as tour operators dropping tourists across the border, the regional single tourist visa, regional infrastructure projects and the revival of a joint co-operation council, the diplomacy body that directs bilateral relations between the two countries. While the latter two came to pass, the former was not mentioned in the communique at the end of the visit.
Also missing was whether Tanzania would review its stand on economic partnership with the European Union which is key to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda accessing the European market without restrictions.
“My visit today is to cement the good relations between Tanzania and Kenya,” said Dr Magufuli. It is understood that the sticking points in relations between the two countries will be discussed at a joint ministerial meeting to be held in Dar es Salaam before the end of the year.
Other issues to be discussed include the EPA standoff, the EAC single tourist visa, free movement of goods and labour, the pipeline projects and the importation of goods from East Africa by Tanzania that can be sourced locally. The disputes over Tanzanian tour vans dropping passengers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and frequency of flights by Kenya Airways to Tanzanian airspace are also pending.
“I think the messaging around the visit was powerful but the proof will be in the pudding,” said Aly-Khan Satchu, the chief executive of Rich Management, an investment advisory firm. On return to Tanzania, however, President Magufuli made moves that suggested that the visit was not just an ice-breaker.
Tanzania announced on Thursday the reduction of work permit fees for East Africa nationals from $2,000 to $500. Permits for setting up businesses in Tanzania will also be reduced by half to $1,500 from $3,000, a move that will encourage professionals in research, law, architecture and real estate firms to set up shop in the country.
Although the drastic reduction fell short of the standards set by Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda — permits but no fees — it suggested that President Magufuli was backing with deed his invitation to “clean” Kenyans to do business with and work in Tanzania.
Not lost on observers was the fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta had last month asked Tanzania to do away with the work permit requirement. The same day, President Magufuli called a press conference at State House, Dar es Salaam, his first, where he fielded questions on his first year in office.
He said Tanzania had shortlisted 40 firms to construct its section of the standard gauge railway, part of the East African Railway Masterplan covering Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Added to the two road deals — one linking Malindi in Kenya to Bagamoyo in Tanzania and the other linking the two countries through Isibania, a border town in southwestern Kenya. The two roads are part of EAC projects meant to boost trade across the region.
“We are keen on integration and security of the region not only in East Africa but also in SADC,” President Magufuli said, reiterating gains from his visit to Rwanda and the visit last month by Morocco’s King Mohammed IV to Dar es salaam. He said Morocco had promised to open its skies for direct flights from Dar es Salaam to Rabat where Tanzania hopes to get a slice of Morocco’s 14 million tourists.
On peace in Burundi and South Sudan, President Magufuli said a peaceful solution would be found because South Sudan was now part of the 165-million people EAC bloc. “Tanzanians must take advantage of the bloc’s strength as a mega market as well as SADC with its 400 million people,” he said.
By Njiraini Muchira and Asterius Banzi