How Magufuli is shaping East Africa’s geopolitics

Saturday April 30 2016

Dubbed the bulldozer, Tanzania under President John Magufuli tutelage is slowly reshaping how the future of regional mega projects will be determined. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |

At its inception, the Coalition of the Willing (CoW) was billed as the best alternative to the snail’s pace push to integrate the East African Community.

But the events of last week, which saw Tanzania snap the oil pipeline deal from Kenya, and is courting Rwanda on the standard gauge railway (SGR) deal, indicate that this could have been just another show of all talk and no action.

At the centre of this Tanzania charm is President John Pombe Magufuli. Dubbed the bulldozer, Tanzania under his tutelage is slowly reshaping how the future of regional mega projects will be determined.

In June 2013, then a rejuvenated President Uhuru Kenyatta reenergised Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda to concentrate their efforts in actualising multibillion dollar infrastructure projects like pipeline, railways and the Lapsset and Mombasa port projects.

East Africa Chamber of Commerce chief executive Charles Kahuthu said that the coalition managed to make some inroads in areas such as the harmonisation of the one network area, common tourism visas and the improved efficiency in moving goods from the Mombasa port into landlocked Rwanda and Uganda.

“The mega infrastructure projects they had proposed experienced delays due to thorny issues because they involved heavy capital commitments, and that’s where Tanzania found its magic touch,” said Mr Kahuthu.


The CoW seems to have left the region in a catch 22 situation because of the potency of divisions, suspicions and bad blood created by countries that were willing to move on without the others. But this seems to have changed with the election of President Magufuli in October last year, whose goodwill among his East African peers has seen him start attracting interests from Uganda and Rwanda.

What could be his charming factor?

During former president Jakaya Kikwete's reign, Tanzania’s relations with Rwanda were at an all-time low, with the two leaders avoiding meeting one another. However, with the new president, this has changed drastically.

His presidency is now being looked at for signs on what it will bring to Tanzania, the region and southern Africa.

During his maiden foreign tour to Rwanda, President Paul Kagame praised President Magufuli's refreshing stance has earned him goodwill beyond Tanzania’s borders.

“Since you were elected, your presence has been refreshing. Your words and deeds reflect our vision. Your stance against corruption is very refreshing. We are committed to working with partners who feel we have to raise our level of dignity because that is what we deserve,” Mr Kagame said.

READ: Trade, renewed relations as Magufuli visits Kigali

ALSO READ: Of presidential bromances and Dar’s turn northward

Considering how swift Tanzania has worked to snatch the oil pipeline deal away from Kenya, and the incentives they have provided, which the Kikwete government was not keen on, there could be a new reorganisation in the region, and the infrastructure projects under the CoW initiatives are up for grabs, with Dar leading the onslaught.

READ: Pipeline: Tanzania minister says Uganda chose Tanga port

Rwanda has also now turned to Tanzania to deliver a new railway project, giving a back burner to the Kenyan championed SGR project, of which the latter has embarked on with already 180 kilometres rail laid out, of the over 400 expected to reach Nairobi.

READ: Rwanda looks to Tanzania for rail transport as Uganda falters on SGR

Mmari Chacha, a Dar es Salaam based international relations consultant at Innovate said that the regional countries are awed by Magufuli’s charms especially towards a governance, service delivery and service to the poor.

According to the World Bank, the inefficiencies at the Dar port has been costing regional economies $900 million annually, with Tanzania losing in excess of $2 billion.

Mr Chacha said that with Magufuli moving in and promising to clamp down on these governance and inefficiencies, then Tanzania now becomes an attractive trading and development partner for countries like Burundi and Rwanda.

“He (Magufuli) realised that for Tanzania to regain its competitive edge, he needed to move in and reign on the port officials. We have seen improvements on the volumes and hope that in the next three years, will be a preferred port for the land locked countries within the community,” said Mr Chacha.

The lack of political will among the CoW countries to agree on key projects or even prioritise their implementation has seen Tanzania, under Mr Magufuli come out strongly to regain its integration slot within the region.

“Had he walked in and found these projects underway within the CoW coalition, he would have little room to manoeuvre. But he came in understanding that the stakes were high, and with goodwill, concessions and determination to prove himself,” argues Mr Chacha.

Early March, Tanzania’s term as chair of the EAC was extended at the regional Heads of State Summit in Arusha, where President Magufuli lashed out at the Secretariat over its lavish spending.

It is widely expected that his strict approach against corruption will reach beyond Tanzania into the EAC Secretariat, which has come under intense scrutiny over financial mismanagement.

Thomas Kinyonda, an economist said that it should be telling that it took a fresh face on the block to come and read the riot act to the EAC Secretariat.

“President Magufuli’s charm is that he is able to face the truth and say it. Leaders should have the courage to confront and deal with the rot in their context. This should mean well for EAC projects that are largely donor-funded as the confidence levels from the donor community are set to increase,” said Mr Kinyonda.