Jan. 3, 2018
President Magufuli's aversion to foreign travel has not prevented the country from forging stronger ties with China, South Africa, Turkey, Ethiopia, Israel, and Morocco in the course of the past year.
The subject of much acclaim and ample controversy, John Magufuli's presidency has been nothing if not colorful. But he has not only been shaking things up on the domestic front; Tanzania's foreign affairs over the past two years have been almost inseparable from developments stemming from the president's office. With the exception of minor glitches—most notably a recent controversy surrounding the repatriation of Burundian refugees—the country has made a nearly uninterrupted series of diplomatic gains under Magufuli's leadership in the past year.
Whether it was increased trade and transport ties with China and Turkey, the opening of the first Israeli visa processing center in the country, or major energy infrastructure projects with neighboring Uganda, the country has maintained relations with all its major allies and strengthened them with several new ones.
In material terms, perhaps the most significant news came in May 2017, when it was announced that Tanzania and Uganda had signed a USD3.55-billion deal to build the world's longest electrically heated pipeline to transport Ugandan crude to the rest of the world via the Indian Ocean. A major political-economic and diplomatic coup, it was previously thought the pipeline would go through neighboring Kenya instead. While a joint venture with China's CNOOC, Britain's Tullow Oil, and France's Total, the latter has said it will foot much of the bill for the pipeline. Only discovered in 2006, Uganda is thought to have reserves of 6.5 billion barrels. Once completed, the pipeline will begin in Uganda's landlocked western region and extend 1,445km to the Tanzanian Indian Ocean port of Tanga.
Relations with its most prominent neighbor, Kenya, have been less buoyant. Back in March, Magufuli came under attack from his counterparts in Nairobi for assuring a delegation of Kenyan doctors during the height of the 100-day Kenyan doctors' strike that they would duly be given employment in Tanzania should they relocate. Whether or not in jest, this only iced the already frosty ties between the two giants of the East African seaboard.
Ambitious in form if not yet in content, the two are the backbone of the East African Community (EAC), a body founded in 2000 with the goal—in theory—of moving gradually toward a single market and currency. But Tanzania has shown resistance to moving ahead with the currency union—at least in part because of fears that Kenya's dominant currency, the Kenyan shilling, would ultimately triumph. What's more, in October 2016 it pulled out of a common visa plan for the entire community, in which a USD100 tourist-visa gains visitors admittance to every participating member—which now only consists of Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.
As if part of a broader pattern, this came merely months after Tanzania declined to sign an Economic Partnership Agreement between the EAC and the European Union that would have greatly opened up the community to trade with Europe—and vice versa. Yet, as Tanzania's Minister for Trade, Industries and Investment, Charles Mwijage, said at the time: “Internationally, we trade with Britain, China, India, and South Africa. When you don't have Britain in a deal with Europe, what do you have?" Not surprisingly, fears also abounded that Tanzania would be flooded by superior, cheaper EU goods, whilst Tanzanian raw materials critical to domestic industry and industrialization would flow from the country en masse to serve much higher EU demand. Though Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi were on board to pass the agreement, Uganda followed Tanzania in abstaining at the last minute. Under the terms of the World Trade Organization, nations aligned within a trade bloc cannot individually enter into other trade agreements.
Throughout the summer, President Magufuli also loomed large over the controversial national elections in Kenya. A highly contested political contest, the personal friendship between Magufuli and Kenyan presidential hopeful Raila Odinga, leader of the National Super Alliance (NASA), became a carrying-card of legitimacy for the latter. In late July, barely two weeks before the election, Odinga promised a far more open and flexible national border with Tanzania if and when he won the election. “Magufuli is my friend; I will speak to him and ensure that this border is opened," he promised.
He was referring to a series of border incidents that have also contributed to the general malaise hanging over the two countries. Tanzanian authorities on the other side of the Namanga crossing had recently been arresting, jailing, or deporting an untold score of Kenyans without work permits. This provoked protests and even riots on the Kenyan side of the border, not to mention Kenyan authorities retaliating against expat and migrant Tanzanians in and around Namanga. Odinga claimed his personal friendship with Magufuli alone would put an end to the frigid fracas damaging ties between East Africa's two most important players.
As tensions have come to a boiling point in neighboring Burundi since the spring of 2016 over whether or not President Pierre Nkurunziza can successfully extend his term limit, the number of Burundian refugees who have crossed over into Tanzania has mushroomed to 240,000. Though Tanzania had been granting citizenship to a select number of them through naturalization, Magufuli told his Minister of Home Affairs in July to halt that process. “It's not that I am expelling Burundian refugees. I am just advising them to voluntarily return home," the president reassured activists on both sides of the border. “I urge Burundians to remain in their country; I have been assured the place is now calm."
Nairobi and Bujumbura aside, relations are much better with other regional and global powers. For starters, the country received various large and well-endowed delegations from South Africa and Morocco in spring 2017 that reiterated Tanzania's weight in the African Union (AU). For the latter, this was part of its decades-long bid to gain re-entry into the AU after withdrawing in the 1980s to protest Western Sahara's membership in that body.
For Johannesburg, President Jacob Zuma traveled to Dar es Salaam in May to launch the South Africa-Tanzania Bi-National Commission, an agreement first signed in 2011. With more than 150 South African firms working in Tanzania, the commission will cover not only commercial matters, but a litany of cultural, environmental, and governance-related themes as well. From biodiversity conservation and management to transportation, security, hospitality, financial services, retail, and infrastructure development, it will be the most comprehensive agreement between the longtime allies since independence.
Though a historic ally of the Palestinian people, Tanzania also welcomed the opening of the country's first Israeli visa processing center in late 2016, while announcing the opening of the first Tanzanian embassy in Tel Aviv. As Israeli adventurers head to Tanzania en masse, hopes are that the Jewish state's healthy appetite for East Africa will serve as a cultural and diplomatic conduit for far more westerners to spread their wings in the shade of Kilimanjaro.
As for the more traditional powers, the UK, the US, and China, things could almost not be better. While the UK remains the country's largest trading partner, China inched from sixth in 2011 to second in 2016; how much longer London can hold the boat is any sailor's guess.
This brings up the biggest surprise of the diplomatic season: Tanzania's burgeoning ties with Turkey. Though Ankara has shown displeasure at what it sees as the residual influence in Tanzania of Fetullah Gülen-related organizations, the Islamist movement now banned in Turkey, this did not prevent a joint Turkish-Portuguese venture from winning the contract to build what will soon be East Africa's fastest train line. To stretch from the DRC in the west to Tanzania's Indian Ocean coast in the east, the train will transit through Rwanda and Burundi en route, thus connecting four of East Africa's most critical nations with the sea—and one another. Turkish firm Yapı Merkezi and Portuguese firm Mota-Engil were awarded the contracts to build the Dar es-Salaam-Morogoro juncture of the journey, whose foundations have already been laid. If this progress, speed, and efficiency are as forthcoming on other fronts, the country will find itself a magnet for much more than economic or conflict-related migrants.