Presidents Samia Hussein Suluhu and Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi on Wednesday as the Tanzanian leader arrives for her maiden visit to Kenya/Photo: PUK

What Tanzanian President Suluhu’s visit to Kenya means for the two countries

President Samia Hussein Suluhu has moved quickly to consolidate her power with the demise of the former president John Pombe Magufuli. Key in her agenda, is her effort to repair the frosty relations between Nairobi and Dodoma on the economic, diplomatic and political realms, writes Prof David Monda* as he analyses the Tanzanian leader’s maiden visit to Kenya.


Kenya is President Suluhu’s second visit abroad. It consolidates the basis of Tanzanian foreign policy centered on regional integration.

On her first visit abroad in April 2021, President Suluhu was in Kampala. She arrived to sign a 3.55 billion dollar electrically heated oil pipeline from Hoima in western Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga. This is one area of tension between Kenya and Tanzania. This is because the initial pipeline plan was to connect the vast oil and gas reserves from Hoima to the port of Lamu in Kenya.

The broader vision in Nairobi was to have the Uganda pipeline linked to the greater LAPPSET oil pipeline between Uganda, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. Tanzania changed that.

Uganda changed its mind on the Lamu route for export of its oil. Instead, it opted for the port of Tanga in Tanzania. On the face of it, this might appear a minor change of plans for Uganda. However, in geostrategic terms, it was undoubtedly a blow to Kenya’s effort at being the regional hub for imports and exports to and from East and Central Africa.

Other areas of diplomatic tension involved the arrest of Kenyan herders in Tanzania in 2017, the torching of live chicks from Kenya in the same year and the cancellation of landing rights for Kenya Airways in Tanzania in 2020.

The arrest of Kenyan Maasai headers and subsequent auctioning of their livestock raised the diplomatic temperature between the two states. This was exacerbated by the torching of 6400 live chicks Tanzania claimed were illegally imported from Kenya. This did not go down well with the Kenyan government.

In 2020, an additional irritant to relations between the two nations was the abrupt cancellation of Kenya Airways flights between Kenya and Tanzania by the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority. This is because Tanzania appeared on the list of counties red flagged by Kenya for Covid-19.

Suluhu’s overture will go some way in sorting these recent challenges. Especially since the visit is centrally focused on the Kenya-Tanzania business community and Tanzania’s diplomatic relations with the Kenyan government.

On the economic front, Tanzania has good reason to want to smooth relations between the two nations, as diplomatic and trade wars are mutually deleterious. According to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, Kenyan exports to Tanzania stood at approximately $330 million in 2019 during the Magufuli administration, down from almost $430 million in 2013 during the Kikwete administration.

Correspondingly, Tanzanian exports to Kenya were approximately $340 million in 2019, down from a high of $800 million in 2015.

The Kikwete Administration had warmer relations with Kenya than the Magufuli regime. This was reflected in trade volumes. President Suluhu is looking to get trade volumes between the two nations rising again. The current balance of trade is in Tanzania’s favour. This reality adds more importance to Suluhu’s overtures.

In terms of political frameworks, Tanzania needs to mend fences with regional bodies like the East African Community (EAC). Tanzania is the host country for the EAC. However, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have held several high-level meetings from which Tanzania was excluded.

There is the perception that Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda are eager to move into deeper regional integration without Tanzania. Tanzania is felt to be dragging its feet on integration and more inclined to its relations with the Southern African Development Conference (SADC).

Tanzania finds itself in a dilemma in terms of its activity in the EAC and SADC. This is an area President Suluhu’s visit to Kenya will be looking to settle. This is because this visit, and her recent one to Kampala, signifies the impor​tance of good relations with EAC partners.

The recent election of Kenya’s Peter Mutuku Mathuki as the head of the EAC Secretariat adds another political conduit Suluhu can exploit to entrench regional cooperation. She can also leverage on Kenya’s recent election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations to advance regional political initiatives on an international forum.

On the international scene, international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) have clashed with Tanzania on its coronavirus response. The inexplicable callous manner with which the Magufuli administration dealt with the pandemic in the Tanzania frayed relations with international partners.

In January this year for instance, the WHO Director for the African Region Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, urged Tanzania to scale public health measures against Covid-19 and prepare for vaccination. According to Dr. Moeti, the WHO is still waiting for a response from the Tanzanian authorities on measures Tanzania is taking to respond to the pandemic.

Suluhu has a chance to use this visit to advance a regional response to the pandemic within the framework of the EAC, and mending tense relations with international partners. Overall, Suluhu’s visit means a lot for the people of both countries. Rais Suluhu, Karibu Kenya (welcome to Kenya)!

Prof Monda teaches political science, international relations and American government at the City University of New York (York College), New York, USA. @dmonda1

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