Rwanda and Tanzania appear headed for closer ties following President John Pombe Magufuli’s visit to Kigali, during which he held largely private talks with President Paul Kagame.
On the surface President Magufuli’s visit to Rwanda was motivated by trade – opening a common border post.
That Rwanda was his first official stop outside Tanzania pointed to an urgency to mend the frosty relations between the two countries that appeared to worsen during his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete’s reign.
Before and during President Kikwete’s reign, a calculated approach to integration under the East Africa Community seemed to sap the patience out of Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, leading to the formation of what was dubbed the coalition of the willing.
The three countries, united by the need to expedite trade along the northern corridor, earmarked the standard gauge railway and port reforms. On the human side the coalition’s initiatives were anchored by measures to allow freer movement of labour and travel through single tourist visas and use of national identification cards for citizens crossing borders.
The division saw many analysts fear for the bloc despite officials insisting that under the principle of reciprocity and variable geometry countries were allowed to join regional initiatives at the point where they felt ready enough. This sounded quite hollow with Tanzania and Burundi snubbing meetings called to fast-track integration.
During the Burundi political crisis last year, Tanzania appeared to be sympathetic to President Pierre Nkurunziza. At the time, relations between Rwanda and Burundi were tense with the two countries accusing each other of harbouring elements hostile to the other; a dispute that the UN is still trying to resolve.
Earlier Tanzania had even suggested that Rwanda should hold talks with FDLR – a group based in DR Congo whose ranks include fugitives wanted for their role in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
The landscape appears to be changing now with President Magufuli at the helm of diplomacy in Tanzania with many expecting the bloc to benefit from closer rapport between leaders.
“Rwanda really has to build strong and lasting relations with Tanzania. Dar es Salaam has the shortest route to the ocean for Rwanda’s exports and imports, and any frosty relations between both states could hamper that route. Even better is that both Kagame and Magufuli are straightforward leaders and are keen on results,” Simeon Wiehler, Dean of the School of Social, Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Rwanda, said in an interview.
The proximity card has also come to the fore in the context between Kenya and Tanzania on the route a pipeline to deliver Uganda oil to export markets should take. Although Uganda and Kenya had a standing arrangement that the pipeline would pass via northern Kenya to link up with the Turkana oilfields and empty into Lamu along the Indian Ocean.
During the heads of State Summit last month Uganda and Tanzania signed another MoU that could see the pipeline pass close to Lake Victoria via Tanzania and be loaded for export at Tanga.
A meeting to decide on a joint route is expected in Kampala this week. Should the countries go separate ways on the pipeline, it would show the diplomatic clout that President Magufuli has mustered in the bloc, leaving Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta scratching for answers. An agreement on a joint route, whether through Kenya or Tanzania, would still leave President Magufuli’s reputation intact.
While in Rwanda Presidents Kagame and Magufuli opened the Rusumo One-Stop-Border Post and International Bridge to facilitate business and travel. The shared post is expected to reduce the time it takes to pass through checks from one hour to 20 minutes for cargo and from 20 minutes to five minutes for travellers.
The leaders also attended two functions on opposite sides of the border.
President Magufuli also joined Rwandans in the 22nd commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which was marked on April 7, before flying back to Tanzania.