A region on the fly: Queen Samia and the five East African kings

Saturday September 04 2021
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan (front left) is welcomed to Nairobi by her Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta (right) in May this year. The leader will be significant in the region’s political, social and economic shift in the next four years. PHOTO | FILE

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Read Part I: Covid-era E. Africa: Presidential shirts, workouts and eating with peasants

Read Part II: Uhuru is restless, Kagame and Museveni begin long walk

The East Africa that was portrayed in the last two parts of this series was going along like all families that love and fight – until March when the death of Tanzania’s bulldozer president John Pombe Magufuli gifted the job to his deputy, Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Vice presidents who want to last long in office in East Africa, like many other places, keep fairly low profiles, not wanting to steal the president’s thunder – especially if he/she has a fragile ego, as is the wont.

One of the few exceptions is Kenya, where Deputy President William Ruto started in 2013 as a near co-principal with President Uhuru Kenyatta. In 2018, that experiment ran into headwinds, and today has crashed on the rocks of political reality.

VP Samia kept out of Magufuli’s way, and outside Tanzania, the world heard little of her. After he was called to be with the Lord and Samia was sworn in, it emerged that she was one of the back channels other leaders used to gingerly reach out to the court of the reliably patriotic, but often erratic and volatile Magufuli.


In the bickering East African family, Suluhu arrived like that cuddly, sensible, beloved aunt who calms down things but will also be quick to whack an errant nephew’s bottom with her slipper.

She ditched Magufuli’s Covid-19 denialism, poured water on his herbal cure quackery, and started releasing infection and death data after some months of prevarication. She took some boot off the necks of Tanzania’s oppressed independent media and civil society but seemed to squeeze in again in late July with the arrest of Freeman Mbowe, the leader of Tanzania's main opposition party Chadema, along with other senior officials just hours before they planned to hold a forum to demand constitutional reform.

Split personality on East Africa

She was immediately portrayed as Magufuli Lite, Pombe with Lipstick. An optimistic view from a senior journalist in Dar es Salaam was that Suluhu was in a consolidation phase, and for at least two years, she will have to be mindful of Magufuli loyalists who are still deeply entrenched in government, because they could cut her legs off. The “autocratic eruptions” from his era, he argued, will be around for a while.

The most notable departure from the Magufuli era has been in her embrace of East Africa. For historical reasons, especially its role in the southern African liberation struggle, and subsequent membership in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Tanzanian leaders have reasonably had to be schizophrenic about the East African project – in the morning they are East African and in the afternoon Southern African. Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania’s president between December 2005 and November 2015, perhaps represented the most extreme case of this contortion.

Magufuli swung and was Tanzania’s most provincial leader. That said, it’s a narrow view to see Tanzania’s split East African personality as rejection. Tanzania enabled a lot of the things that weave together the East African market, except that it doesn’t do so with song and dance, or proclaim it from the rooftops.

Its lead role in ousting Uganda military ruler Idi Amin in 1979 was the most prominent. To name a few, less visibly, it was easily the key player in the settlement that ended the first Burundi civil war in 2005 with the swearing of Pierre Nkurunziza into power. In 2013 it sent troops to eastern DR Congo as part of the UN Intervention Brigade, the first peacekeeping troops who had the stomach to fight seriously there. And in the wider cultural scheme, it has been both the main East African custodian and incubator of Rhumba and Taarab music.

Suluhu, though not a product of the Tanzania national security apparatus like Jakaya Kikwete or old ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) establishment like Ben Mkapa, has signalled a clear bias toward the East African face. Born in Makunduchi, an old town on Unguja, Zanzibar, she has brought a typical islander’s pragmatic, seafaring, merchant common sense to the job.

Metaphorically, she is a great-great-grandchild of the 19th century forces that shaped East Africa, beginning in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, which shortened the voyage from Europe to India by 6,400km, and led to the birth of the modern Kenyan-dominated financial system in East Africa, with the opening of a new National Bank of India branch in Zanzibar. From that branch grew the regional giant KCB Bank today.

Lake Victoria billions

Within six months of assuming office, she had travelled to all the EAC countries except South Sudan, riding a business wind. Today trade with Uganda, and especially Kenya, are at a record high.

The Uganda-Tanzania crude oil pipeline, that had been jogging along during Magufuli’s time, started sprinting. There is finally fidgeting in the oil fields in western Uganda, and with it, the Uganda shilling has gained against all regional currencies.

Along the Central Corridor, the railway line project to Burundi and Rwanda, aided by a slightly more improved leadership in Burundi in the person of President Evariste Ndayishimiye, looks like it might see the light of day.

The “race of the ports” is fully on between Tanzania and Kenya. Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam long stole the top spot as Rwanda’s leading port from Mombasa, and there’s a Kenyan fightback underway to stem further losses, as Uganda too drifts.

In these pandemic times, President Uhuru launched the first berth of Kenya’s much-maligned Lamu port in May, confounding naysayers. In late August, Lamu port received its fifth container cargo ship, the 294-metre long Dutch-owned vessel MV Seago. It docked to discharge 100 containers destined for Zanzibar, before proceeding to Mombasa. It was the first longship to dock in Lamu and second-longest ever in Kenya after the MSC Maxine pulled into Mombasa port in 2018.

On Lake Victoria, Kenya has undertaken a quiet but no less dramatic revival of Kisumu port, to milk new fortunes from the lake basin’s $50 billion economic opportunities that is yet to be exploited. From the revived port, Kenya’s 180-tonne, 91-metre MV Uhuru cargo carrier made over 30 round trips to Ugandan ports, moving more than 50 million litres of fuel.

Tanzania is responding. Next year it will unleash the $38.72 million MV Mwanza Hapa Kazi Tu on the lake, and early this year Suluhu inaugurated a $15.53 million slipway at the Mwanza South port that will facilitate further ship construction projects for Lake Victoria. She declared that the aim “was to make Mwanza a major hub of marine business in the Great Lakes region once the SGR project is complete.”

First female Muslim president

Suluhu, significantly, is the first woman Muslim executive president in the region, and the second to Mauritius’ former president Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who was the first female Muslim president in Africa.

Conservative in her social views, Suluhu is not woke, yet the symbolism around her is important. We have seen sharp-suited female bodyguards with mean machine guns in Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s detail. Suluhu’s guard couldn’t be more different; it’s mostly all-female, and to rhyme with her religious headscarf, also cover their hair. It all subverts the idea that covered women should also be out of sight, and cannot project power as guardians of a country’s ruler.

The next four years will reveal her ability to shift the pieces on the East African playboard as three defining events unfold. The first will be the election in Kenya in August 2022; the second will be the Rwanda election in 2024 when all eyes will be on President Paul Kagame; and the third the transition in Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni will have clocked a record 40 years in power at the next vote in 2026.

In the coming weeks, we will take the opportunity to explore how those events will play out. The Kenyan succession, ironically, happening in the East African political market where contestation is freest and highest, is the most unpredictable – and has the greatest potential to go horribly wrong if it continues on the current octane level.

A president and granddaughter

Rwanda’s President Kagame, while attending a summit in Doha in 2019, said — when he was asked if he would run again in 2024 — that it was possible would not be a candidate.

“Most likely no. I want to have some breathing space but, given how things are and how they have been in the past, I have made up my mind, where I am personally concerned, that it is not going to happen next time,” he said.

In Africa, though, the people only believe leaders who say that when they eat the pudding.

Observers in Rwanda say one of the signs of Kagame’s future moves is to be seen in Gacuriro, a leafy suburb of Kigali. There is rapid work being done on a vast house, believed to be Kagame’s first private home in the capital, to have it ready before 2024. On his personal Twitter page, Kagame rarely posts photographs with his tweets to his 2.4 million followers. In the past two years, he has done so only eight times.

Between September 16, 2020 to date, he has done so three times, with two of the most viral ones — besides his latest postings bemoaning Arsenal FC’s miserable form — being with him holding and looking adoringly at his new granddaughter whom he calls “this little wonderful human being”. A journalist in Kigali said, “the little girl has taken him. He’s gone, he’s not coming back in 2024”. In July 2024, weeks before the election, the “little girl” will turn four. Many will be watching Kagame’s page for his post.

What East Africa will he and the exiting East African cast of Uhuru and Museveni will leave behind? In Kampala in 2017, there was a peek of it. The IAAF World Cross Country Championships was hosted in Uganda's capital.

One of the most enduring images from that event is a photograph of the scene at the end of the 10km men’s event. While everyone else had collapsed, the East Africans, who had of course won all the podium positions, were on their feet prancing about like they were good to go again. Unusually, President Museveni attended the races and sat through them all day, marking the first time he had sat all day through an event that was not a convention of his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM). Before him unfolded something of which sport was only the icing on the cake. The East Africans towering over their fallen rivals told of new triumphant trends.

East Africans rule the roost

At the recent Tokyo Olympics, Kenya placed 19th in the medals table and the highest in Africa. Uganda continued its march into the long-distance running elite club, placing 38th globally, and the second in Africa. The Uganda-Kenya-Ethiopia belt brought home seven – 63.6 percent — of Africa’s 11 gold medals at the Olympics.

Behind face masks, the NBA's new Basketball Africa League had made its long-awaited debut in May in Kigali, cashing in on the region’s newest and most advanced basketball arena. The East Africans didn’t win that one. Egypt’s Zamalek took it down the River Nile with them.

In late August, the World Athletics Under-20 Championships came to Kenya and were held at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. The medals stayed home this time. Kenya dominated the championship shamelessly, with a medal haul of 16; eight gold, one silver and seven bronze, for its best-ever performance in 11 years at the world junior event.

There are many reasons more East Africans are running, and faster, and why there’s a flood of continental and global sports, from cycling, basketball, World Rally Championship, and athletics convening in the region. One gets some insight into it on a visit to Sebei in Uganda’s Mt Elgon, the swath of territory that runs through the Rift Valley and is producing the seemingly endless crop of world-beating long-distance runners.

There are contradictions shifts in Sebei. The rolling ranges are populated by a growing class of wealthy farmers with expensive homes, built fortunes made in part from the lucrative cross-border trade in food with Kenya, with which an impressive network of connecting roads have been built. But the region has also been battered by climate change effects, with environmental degradation widespread, and the growing population putting pressure on the land. Young people are being forced from the inlands, and the longer distances travelled to get water and fuelwood are combining to create, as in the Rift Valley, an army of athletes birthed in the highlands.

Along with this, across East Africa’s urban areas, basketball hoops, cycling, and marathons are mushrooming or growing to the next level to soak up the energies of these youthful populations.

Hard geopolitics

On the harder geopolitical edge, collectively the Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya made the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), which has given the country a third shot at life, work. Rwanda stretched far to Darfur to anchor the UN peacekeeping force in that deadly corner of Sudan, then South Sudan after the bottom fell out in December 2013; deployed to save the Central African Republic from another descent to hell, and lately rushed to Mozambique’s Capo Delgado to help expel Islamist rebels, who had held the region for nearly five years.

Old approaches don’t disappear overnight, though. Uganda is in South Sudan, but playing guard to the Salva Kiir government – a partisan mission, but perhaps helping a semblance of a functioning state to still stand. It is also giving succour to the rickety regime of the long-ruling strongman Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Malabo.

In Uganda, Museveni’s longevity, meanwhile, could well be determined by the oil pipeline to the Tanga Port. Its realisation would have far-reaching consequences for the Uganda transition. An oil-cash-rich Museveni would fund his legacy and pay out the terms of his departure. In that sense, the Ugandan transition will depend quite a bit on Suluhu. It’s a little like 1979, when Tanzania shaped the political change in Kampala. This time, though, there are no guns.

With the spectre of Covid-19 looming over the region, that so far is the story of Queen Samia and the Five East African Kings.