Late Tanzania President John Magufuli’s frosty relationship with Kenya
Published on: March 19, 2021 11:35 (EAT)
Diplomatic flare-ups and tension between Kenya and Tanzania characterised the late president John Pombe Magufuli’s almost 6-year tenure. His on and off tiffs with other East African Community Heads of State, including boycotting EAC summits and very few international trips, was the hallmark of Magufuli’s unusual diplomacy. Despite his repeated assurances that Kenya and Tanzania were not only neighbours, but brothers, Magufuli will be remembered for banning flights from Nairobi in retaliation to the listing of Tanzania by Kenya among nations whose residents must be subjected to mandatory 14-day quarantine on visiting the country. A year after his election to succeed Jakaya Kikwete, the late President Magufuli made his first State visit to Kenya, ostensibly to end his perceived hostility to Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration that actively supported Chadema flagbearer Edward Lowassa in the October 2015 presidential race in Tanzania. The elaborate State reception, complete with a 21-gun salute, was seen as the perfect way to mend fences. “Tumekuwa tukizungumza sana na rais Uhuru, mara nyingi kwenye simu, tunapigiana simu kwa mambo mengi…lakini kwa sababu simu huwa hazionekani hadharani, watu wengine hawajui, sasa basi mjue leo kwamba huwa tunazungumza na Mheshimiwa Uhuru Kenyatta, na kwamba sisi ni marafiki, ni ndugu,” Magufuli said at a press address during the visit. But months later, Magufuli’s administration rubbed Kenyans the wrong way when 6,400 day-old chicks were burnt for fear of bird flu spread. Days later, the now fallen president justified the confiscation and auction of 1,300 herds of cattle from Kajiado County herders, and another 6,600 from Uganda, for alleged trespass; he was subsequently accused of hostile neighbourliness. “Lazima niwaeleze ukweli ndugu zangu, Tanzania tuna eneo kubwa, lakini haliwezi likawa eneo la kuchungia mifugo kutoka nje,” he said then. It took an informal breakout on the sidelines of an East African Community summit for Kenya and Tanzania to iron out differences. Then came President Kenyatta’s visit of Magufuli’s rural home in Chato village, Geita province, which was seen as turning a new page in Kenya’s edgy diplomatic ties with Tanzania. The visit came against an ugly backdrop of complaints of official harassment from traders of both sides of the border. “Tunataka tujenge nidhamu, watu wetu wafanye biashara free, pasiwepo na matatizo yoyote,” Magufuli told the press. The icing on the Chato meeting was a gift of four peacocks for Kenyatta from Magufuli delivered at State House, Nairobi, in July 2019. Kenya returned to Tanzania 35 kilos of gold worth over Ksh.100 million and Ksh.15 million in cash that was seized at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in February 2018. “Na mimi, ndugu yangu, nasema tuendelee kushirikiana namna hiyo…Kenya na Tanzania vile tulisema, hatuna mipaka…sisi ni kitu kimoje,” President Kenyatta told Magufuli in a public phone call. But the peacock diplomacy would soon run into a new set of challenges, over the two countries’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kenyan government shut its borders with Tanzania to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Magufuli responded by blocking trucks from Kenya, resulting in weeks of agony for traders and losses running into millions of shillings. Normalcy returned only when the two presidents agreed to end the stalemate. “Kwa Watanzania wengi, Kenya ni nyumbani…na vivyo hivyo, kwa Wakenya, hapa Tanzania ni nyumbani…na wengine wana nyumba kubwa Kenya, lakini nyumba ndogo ipo Tanzania…na kinyume chake ni vivyo hivyo,” Magufuli said during a press address then. However, weeks later, Magufuli’s administration banned flights from Kenya after Tanzania was listed among countries, whose citizens would have to be quarantined for at least 14 days. The August 2020 suspension was lifted after Kenya added Tanzania in the list of COVID-19 safe countries. Magufuli rarely travelled out of Tanzania for Heads of State meetings, opting to be represented by his country’s envoys in the host nations. Last month, he skipped a virtual 21st ordinary East African Community summit chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta. That was the last regional meeting before he went off radar, sparking speculation on his health status, culminating in his death, formally announced on Wednesday night.