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Is President Suluhu the New Hope for EAC integration?

The approach to national politics and regional affairs by Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan has created a renewed hope for Tanzania’s interest in the integration process of the East African Region.

Since taking office in March, President Suluhu Hassan has presented herself as an outgoing Pan-African and integrationist interested in leveraging the advantages of partnerships to boost development. Some view the background of the 61-year old native of Zanzibar, as a politician from a semi-autonomous country, as an advantage that enables her embrace the inter-country relations and integration as vital.

She served as a minister in the government of Zanzibar as well as a Member of Parliament. She then served as State Minister in the Vice President’s Office for Union Affairs up to 2015, before being elected Vice President in 2016. “She too comes from Zanzibar that has flourished due to the Unity with Tanzania”, says Uganda’s outgoing State Minister for EAC Affairs, Julius Wandera Maganda says.

Suluhu Hassan has since made three trips to the region, two of them to Uganda and one to Kenya, in April and May. Her predecessor, the late Magufuli, travelled five times in five years, to East Africa, including three to Uganda and once each to Kenya and Rwanda. He however travelled to four Southern African Development Community, SADC Countries, and once to Ethiopia.

The three times Magufuli visited Uganda were for the presidential inauguration in 2016, the EAC Heads of States Summit in 2017 and the launch of activities on the crude pipeline project in Mutukula. While some hailed Magufuli for saving the country’s resources by limiting travel, others felt that he was too inward-looking and hardly interested in regional integration.

During her ‘relations-mending state visit’ to Kenya early May, President Suluhu implored Kenya to support the revival of economic cooperation between the two countries, adding that “East Africa regional integration is not option”.

“On regional integration, we’re still lagging behind, our integration in behind and 15 per cent slower than other groups. Democracy, Rule of Law and Elections are key components in regional integration,” she said. Relations between Kenya and Tanzania had soured over Kenya’s restrictions on travellers from Tanzania, which had declared having defeated COVID-19 and lifted restrictions.

Tanzania then banned Kenyan flights in August, before lifting the ban a month later. Earlier, Tanzania’s destruction of Kenyan exports at the border claiming poor standards had climaxed the rising threat to regional trade. This had followed cold relations when President Magufuli was deemed to have hijacked Uganda’s crude oil pipeline project from Kenya, to route it through Tanzania.

A Kenyan political strategist Maina Karoba says that a Foreign policy shift by President Suluhu is a great incentive to Africa’s integration and increased continental trade. “Tanzania and Kenya geopolitical positions provide leverage to the two countries to rally the states in the East, South and Central Africa to achieve these goals,” he says.

Kenya-based political economy commentator, Maxwell Masava says Suluhu  is moving to see an end to rivalry in the EAC, which has seen the relations between partner states degenerate into open trade and political conflicts.

“An apparent change of tune ushered in by President Hassan indicates a new economic direction in Tanzania and the salvaging of the ailing East African Community (EAC). President Hassan’s actions are changing regional relations”, Masava says.  

Uganda also suffered the brunt of Tanzania’s nationalist policies then, seeing especially exports to Tanzania blocked. Then-President Magufuli said they did not have to import sugar or maize from anywhere when there was enough supply locally.  

However, Masava does not entirely blame Magufuli for Tanzania’s cold feet towards integration, saying instead, that it started earlier when Tanzania opted out of regional initiatives like the telecommunication plan dubbed ‘One Network Area’, the East African Single Tourist Visa, among others. “It was the Jakaya Kikwete regime that presided over the dwindling fortunes of the EAC with the birth of the Coalition of the Willing (CoW).  

“Tension arose as the EAC member states like Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda were seen as speeding up the implementation of joint projects and referred to themselves as the CoW,” the blogger says.   He says Kenya wanted to maintain its regional dominance, while Tanzania sought to grow and exercise its own influence, which was threatening integration.  

“President Hassan has dismantled the social and economic barriers her predecessor John Magufuli had erected and smoothed the rough edges of diplomatic relations,” he says.  

Minister Wandera says, Hassan is fulfilling Magufuli’s political campaign promises to Tanzania.

“President Samia is Pan Africanist just like other Tanzanian Presidents, she comes  in the office  with  an agenda to accomplish what the late JPM had  promised  to the United Republic of Tanzania during the campaign. She has indicated that EAC Integration Agenda is on top of her programs, having made her first visit to Uganda to witness the Petroleum deal.”  

The East Africa Law Society has hailed Suluhu Hassan’s approach as a breath of life into integration.

“Driving the regional integration agenda requires more than good laws and policies in place. It requires the goodwill of our leaders and the effort of every citizen within the East African Community. Commitments by President Kenyatta and Suluhu to remove barriers are welcome,” says a brief EALS statement on Twitter.

Ms Hassan is the first female president of Tanzania and the third female to act as president in East Africa after Burundi’s Sylvie Kinigi and Agathe Uwilingiyimana of Rwanda. The latter two reigned during the tumultuous days in the countries between 1993 and 1994.  

Kinigi, then prime minister, became acting president when Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated in July 1993 and led Burundi till February 1994 after the election of Cyprien Ntaryamira. In Rwanda, then Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana constitutionally became acting head of state after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 4, 1994. But 14-hours later, the presidential guard guarding her family disarmed the UN troupes guarding the home and shot her and her husband dead.   

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