Of presidential bromances and Dar’s turn northward

Saturday April 09 2016

I don’t know whether it is just me, but it seems a sizzling bromance is developing between Tanzania’s delightfully stingy President John Magufuli, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

Since he was sworn in, if you look closely at the photographs, there is a lot of handholding, smiles, and fuzzy warmth between the two men. The massive disparity in their heights only helps to dramatize their schmoozing.

Although he generally seems to be a touchy-feely character, if it were only that, then he would be more visibly close to Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, perhaps the East African president who is the most natural backslapper and hugger.

Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza is too glum and tense, almost always giving the impression he has swallowed a bee.

Museveni loosens up during elections, and will do nearly everything for votes except dance. But after he has snatched his thing, he quickly goes back to his finicky ways, relying instead on his gift of the gab, where he is probably unparalleled among his peers.

Newest member South Sudan has given us President Salva Kiir. He remains a difficult chap to read, but there is always an air of reticence about him. He is ruthless, though, as the conflict in South Sudan has shown, thus giving the impression of being the werewolf that comes into its menacing own at night when the moon is out.


It seems then that, like every new leader everywhere, Magufuli is setting out his stall, and there could be critical pointers about the direction he wants to take Tanzania, and in which to nudge the region.

Magufuli’s predecessor Jakwaya Kikwete and Kagame certainly didn’t share many smiley emojis, and their chemistry just got worse with the years. In the end, Kikwete actually wrong-footed Rwanda, throwing it off its game on DRC, especially when he backed negotiations with the anti-Kigali FDLR rebels based there, and joined the Angola-South Africa-Zimbabwe axis in their opposition to Rwanda’s geopolitical manoeuvres in Central Africa.

It will be a breather for Kigali, but where it is likely to gain most is from the misfortunes of Burundi. Historically, all coastal East and Horn of Africa countries have cultivated close trade and business ties with their neighbours in the hinterland.

Djibouti, very profitably, with Ethiopia; Kenya with Uganda, and more lately South Sudan and Ethiopia. Tanzania with Uganda, but almost as a closed shop, with Burundi.

Burundi’s economy is on its knees with the renewed violence of the past year, so a Magufuli shift to Rwanda would show a pragmatism and dry-eyed business sense we hadn’t seen before in a Tanzania where such things are hobbled by the ruling CCM’s ideological filters.

And with South Africa’s continued economic slide under the unremarkable and embattled stewardship of Jacob Zuma, and the evaporation of a large slice of Angola’s economy with the collapse of oil prices, the Southern African Development Community might no longer be the shining trophy it looked like under Kikwete and Ben Mkapa.

Considering how hard Magufuli worked to snag the Uganda pipeline, catching Nairobi asleep, a real reorientation away from SADC to the EAC could be underway in Dodoma.

It may also help that Magufuli is from Chato – in other words, a boy from the Lake Victoria region. Perhaps because it is a shared water, the people of the Lake have a unique East African outlook, for which we must be thankful.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (