On a recent visit to Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, I was eager to engage my hosts on this issue of the on-and-off marriage between Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.
With the ‘courtship’ on more than a decade now, the feeling has been that the East African Community affair should be taken to the next level.
But Tanzania has seemed politely hesitant – to put it mildly. The first major signs of the escalation of the tensions came in June.
Tanzania’s ‘big man’ Jakaya Kikwete (they call him JK) was preparing for one of his biggest days in office – hosting the president of the United States. Uganda’s YK Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (PK) and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta (UK) decided to have their own meeting to discuss East African matters.
Cynics suggested UK, YK and PK were just sourgraping after they were snubbed by the big boy from Washington.
But since then, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda have become a bolder ‘coalition of the willing’. As we have reported, they have even flirted with the idea of doing their own thing and leaving out the foot-dragging Tanzanians.
And so, I wondered, do ordinary Tanzanians concur with Kikwete?
For Elly, a university lecturer, the issue is simple: many of his countrymen are genuinely sceptical, for good reason. First, both Kenya and Uganda, and even Rwanda, speak a lot of English whereas Tanzania is mostly about Kiswahili.
Some people, Elly tells me, think that further opening up their country could mean more loss of jobs, as new investors are likely to be swayed by the advanced language skills from the north.
Land is another critical factor. Elly speaks of fear that Rwandans, Kenyans and Ugandans are eying Tanzania’s land. It means, therefore, that JK’s expulsion of Banyarwanda immigrants in northern Tanzania, in August, while it raised eyebrows abroad, was not unpopular at home.
Sam, a lively civil society type, is particularly keen on a conversation about regional integration. It is, he says, his favourite dinner topic with his East African ‘brothers’. They need, he often tells them, to first step back and understand where Tanzania is coming from and why it is cautious.
First, Sam says, unlike the countries eager to rush into a marriage, Tanzania is already in a union. Lest it be forgotten, the country is a union of two nations – Tanganyika and Zanzibar, with the latter also having its own parliament and president.
That union has come with its own challenges, with simmering political tensions between the majority CCM party and the CUF in Zanzibar which stands for anything between ‘greater autonomy’ and secession. So, the Tanzanians are saying, “wait a minute; go slow”. They do not want to invite more trouble than they already have.
There are other issues too, Sam says, such as the big investments Tanzania has made into its Southern African Development Community (SADC) ties. Its economy is much more integrated with countries like Zambia and Malawi – not to mention the Asians that the Indian ocean effortlessly brings in.
The country, Sam says, needs to be given serious reasons for ‘rushing’ into this East Africa thing, when things are going well with SADC. In fact, Sam believes that if YK, UK and PK insisted on a union without Tanzania, Kenya would be the biggest loser – as its industrial products would lose a ‘favoured’ status, and become less competitive.
Employing organisational theory, Sam argues that some people are what he calls choleric’, in that they want things to happen quickly and urgently. While risky, choleric people are good for the energy they inject into things. But, he warns, if an organisation has too many choleric people, it can crash, as it will take too many reckless decisions.
In this case, therefore, Tanzania sees itself as the soberer, calmer, wise head trying to force her colleagues to think carefully before rushing in. The Congo conflict also features on Dar es Salaam’s bar menu.
It is claimed that through SADC, Tanzanians have landed on documents inside Congo, suggesting a deeper involvement of Rwanda in Congo than has previously been thought. These documents, one fellow said, have even been translated into English and could be unleashed if Kigali continues to play hard ball.
So, asks Sam, how can Tanzania trust Rwanda and Uganda in East Africa yet there is a risk of fighting them in Congo?
It leaves you thinking that the dynamics of the East African union have somewhat changed. The marriage, it seems, would now be between the ‘choleric coalition’ and the bride that is Tanzania.
And for now, she won’t be rushed. She seems to be saying: “Either we marry in my time and on my terms [possibly with Burundi as the bridesmaid], or you can forget me.” The debate on integration is, therefore, a test of character for the ‘choleric coalition’.
A strategic man could cede some ground and lose a battle, to win the war of the bride. Your ‘typical’ type would tell the woman to go hang.
The author is the editor of The Observer.