When John Pombe Magufuli took over the reins as president of Tanzania in November 2015, the East African Community was already pulling in two opposite directions.
Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda were already coalescing around the “Coalition of the Willing,” as it came to be known — to accelerate the regional integration agenda, from functional issues like trade and tourism to more ideological ones like political federation.
Throughout his presidency, President Magufuli has styled himself as an African nationalist, a bulwark against imperial exploitation and as pro-austerity, anti-corruption crusader. But this Tanzania-first policy outlook has not gone unnoticed in the region.
Only weeks after taking office, President Magufuli banned Kenyan milk firm, Brookside, from collecting the product and directed that all milk produced must be processed locally.
"How many dairy firms do we have that are operational? Do you remember the Brookside Company in Arusha? It used to collect milk from the Maasais in northern parts of Tanzania, take it to Kenya for processing then bring it back to us to drink… Enough is enough," President Magufuli told Tanzania Private Sector Foundation members in December 2015.
"One would have thought that this was a matter he could have easily solved through a phone call to his Kenyan counterpart. But it is such that alienated him from Kenya's top leadership," said Barrack Ndegwa, former Kenya's EAC Integration Secretary.
In 2017, President Magufuli ordered the burning of Kenyan chicks illegally imported into Tanzania and auctioned about 1,125 cattle from Kenya after Kenyan Maasai herders crossed the border in search of pasture.
This July, Tanzania banned Kenya Airways from flying into its territory after Nairobi removed the neighbouring state from a list of more than 30 countries allowed to resume international flights into Kenya from August. In August, Tanzanian aviation authorities banned three Kenyan airlines from flying into the country in retaliation for Kenya subjecting passengers from Tanzania to mandatory 14-day Covid-19 quarantine.
"Among the Tanzanian presidents, the most progressive one in terms of the Community integration was the late Benjamin Mkapa. During his tenure, perhaps because of his journalistic background, he had a good grasp of what was happening in the region," said James Mwamu, former president of the East African Law Society based in Arusha. "But Magufuli for some reason, has brought in the nationalistic posture of Tanzania."
At the East African Legislative Assembly, opinion is divided whether President Magufuli is responsible for the slow pace of integration after missing summit meetings. The Heads of States Summit hasn't met for two years.
Simon Mbugua, a first-time Kenyan MP at EALA observes that President Magufuli has not been enthusiastic about the EAC integration.
"He has also not been travelling. The EAC dream has not been his priority because when there are meetings, he does not attend."
But Magufuli's defenders say he supports regional integration on fair terms. They point out that despite shunning foreign travel, he has visited Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.