No longer a fence-sitter, Tanzania has been very busy with things East African

Saturday February 25 2023

Tanzania has been very busy with East African things. It is there at the centre of all the big ongoing and upcoming joint points of East African Community states. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In the past few days, Tanzania has been very busy with East African things. Early in the week, it approved the construction of the 1,443-kilometre heated East African Crude Oil Pipeline (Eacop), which will transport crude from oil fields in Uganda’s Lake Albert region to the Tanzanian port of Tanga in the Indian Ocean.

The Tanzanian government is not known to be a good environmental babysitter, so it is not surprising that it dismissed the loud human rights and environmental concerns about Eacop as “propaganda”. And that was that.

Earlier, on February 12, it unleashed the MV Mwanza on the waters of Lake Victoria. The 93-metre-long MV Mwanza is the largest vessel in East Africa. A Tanzanian news site dubbed it the “Titanic on Victoria,” obviously referencing its size, not the fate that met its so-named famous predecessor on its first voyage in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912. Built in Tanzania, MV Mwanza will carry 1,200 (if they respect the passenger limit) Ugandan (to Port Bell), Kenyan (to Kisumu Port), and Tanzanian passengers on Lake Victoria.

Last year, Dodoma announced that, together with Burundi, it would establish a 2,561-kilometre standard gauge railway from the port of Dar es Salaam to the latter’s capital. Construction work on the first 1,219-kilometre phase has been underway for some months now.

Hydroelectricity dam

At its north western border, the commonly owned Rusumo Power Company with Rwanda and Burundi is developing the Rusumo hydroelectricity dam, the first tripartite infrastructure project collaboration in East Africa in nearly 50 years. The project sits at the roaring Rusumo Falls, at the common Rwanda-Tanzania border on the River Kagera. The power production facilities are located entirely on the southern bank of the Kagera River in Tanzania, while the substation is located on the northern bank of the river in Rwanda.


Late last year, Tanzania and Kenya agreed to fast-track the construction of a 600-kilometre natural gas pipeline between Dar es Salaam and Mombasa.

Tanzania is there at the centre of all the big ongoing and upcoming joint points of East African Community states. These are profound movements.

Infrastructure bromance

First, in 2013-2014, during the infrastructure bromance between then-President Uhuru Kenyatta, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in the “Coalition of the Willing” (CoW), Tanzania was largely out in the cold, sitting on a fence. CoW floundered. Tanzania probably chuckled with malicious delight at its unceremonious end.

For long, Tanzania felt — and perhaps rightly — that it got the worst deal when the first East African Community collapsed in 1977. Kenya ran away with the rich cream at the top. Uganda drank the watery milk, and Tanzania got the dregs at the bottom of the cup. Like some fellows whose marriages ended in misery and divorce, Tanzania was afraid to fall in love and marry again. Its heart has now mellowed, and it has a twinkle in its eyes. It is ready to wed again.

Additionally, with the liberation movements in southern Africa coming to a head in the 1970s, and Tanzania being the frontline state where most of them were anchored, its gaze shifted south.

The more statesmanlike and intellectually towering figure of President Julius Nyerere was also at odds with the erratic military dictator Idi Amin in Uganda and, as a socialist, averse to what the Tanzanian left considered a despicable corrupt capitalism that ruled in Kenya.

Nyerere became the boy who couldn’t play football with the other lads in his neighbourhood.

infrastructure tie-ups

Second, this generation of infrastructure tie-ups go farther than any previous ones between the EAC countries, and locks them in a partnership that is impossible to break, or a marriage where the divorce settlement would be too high to pay.

Tanzania cannot cut and walk away with the portion of the Eacop because it would be useless as Uganda wouldn’t pump the oil. And Uganda can’t throw a tantrum and walk away with its crude oil because it would have no pipeline to take it to port. Like Tanzania can’t tell Rwanda to go and hang, and deny it power from Rusumo because Rwanda would shut down the sub-station – and vice versa.

None of this means that a madman won’t take power in Kampala, Dodoma, Kigali or Nairobi in the future and burn everything despite the consequences. However, it ensures that as long as there are even just occasionally reasonable leaders in these capitals, these infrastructure interests will limit their ability for intemperate action.

Community of the future

By accident, then, infrastructure interests and the need for countries to protect their stake in them, not the EAC treaties, will define how the Community of the future works.

The fact, noted earlier, that Tanzania is the country in the middle of most of projects, also means the centre of the EAC is shifting southward, and Kenya could move to the margin — especially if Tanzania was to win the race to make its ports like Dar es Salaam the main import and export route for the EAC hinterland.

Nyerere was a pan-Africanist, and he would have been delighted to see Tanzania play this leadership role. However, he was not a business-minded fellow. He believed this kind of leadership had to be ideological, with everyone coming along in the pureness of African brotherhood and sisterhood.

Maybe it’s why the first EAC floundered. It didn’t understand the powerful glue that money, infrastructure-crusted bread and butter can be.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3