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Worsening Kenya-Tanzania Relations over Coronavirus pandemic measures

The novel Coronavirus pandemic has certainly had far reaching impacts on nearly every aspect of human life. Responses to the pandemic have been as various as there are types of human societies. Some societies have responded in ways that are expected, yet others have adopted measures that were unthinkable just under half a year ago. We have seen drastic measures, including those that severely infringe on basic human rights, being taken by countries around the world, including by some of the world’s leading democracies. There has been debate on whether the Coronavirus pandemic is creating room for dangerous and unjustified expansion of powers by autocrats and other leaders. Equally, there has been debate on whether democracy is under attack as a silent victim of the Coronavirus pandemic. It can be expected that these debates will go on for some time as the pandemic interrupts the landscape of power distribution in the world.

Each country has had to respond differently to the Coronavirus pandemic. The said differences in response are based on each nation’s unique circumstances, including the idiosyncrasies of individual leaders. Yet it is this difference in responses that is threatening relations between certain nations. I briefly reflect on the ongoing diplomatic spat between Kenya and Tanzania over different measures that each of these East African countries is taking in tackling Covid-19.

It is important to point out that Kenya and Tanzania have had ‘relationship issues’ stretching many decades back. In fact, the ideological differences between member states, particularly Kenya and Tanzania, are said to be one of the key reasons for the collapse of the former East African Community (EAC) in 1977. In more recent days, we have seen Kenya and Tanzania easily plunge into diplomatic rows over a number of issues, some of which appear minor. They include but not limited to: the matter of Tanzanian small traders in Nairobi, auctioning of cattle belonging to Kenyans by the Tanzania government, the burning of Kenyan chicks by Tanzania, a tourism row, among others. The novel Covid-19 pandemic and the approaches that governments in the two respective countries are taking, have once again rekindled the Kenya-Tanzania rivalry with potential damaging effects not only on the already fractured relations between the two neighboring nations but also the EAC. Regarding the latter, we have witnessed Tanzania, alongside Burundi, skipping the heads of state meetings by EAC member states to chart a collaborative and collective response to tackling the Coronavirus pandemic.

Kenya and Tanzania have taken different approaches to addressing the Coronavirus pandemic. While Kenya is on partial lockdown that commenced in April, Tanzania has completely resisted pressure to lockdown. President John Pombe Magufuli has been a fierce critic of how the world has responded to Coronavirus pandemic. He has played down the severity of Coronavirus. He has argued against the fear being spread over Coronavirus and called on his people to continue with their daily work and even encouraged them to flock religious centers for worship. President Magufuli has gone as far as questioning the integrity of the tests being conducted in his own country and ordered investigations on the same. Amid criticism, President Magufuli has since eased various restrictions such as lifting of passenger flight restrictions and scrapping mandatory quarantine for foreigners as he increasingly seeks to have the country – which has only had relatively mild measures – to return to normalcy.

The different paths taken by Kenya and Tanzania, in addressing Coronavirus, have seen the two neigboruing countries put in place contradictory measures which are particularly affecting cross-border transportation. On 16th May 2020, Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared a closure of the country’s borders with Tanzania and Somalia. This followed what government of Kenya claimed was a spike in imported Covid-19 cases from Tanzania. For example, Kenya reported to have tested and denied entry to nearly two hundred travelers from Tanzania who had tested positive for Covid-19. This, then led to raising of restrictive measure at ports of entry, including banning passenger travels between the two countries and demanding that all cargo truck drivers be tested and declared Covid-19 free before they can be allowed entry into Kenya. These measures seem to have angered Tanzanian authorities triggering the ongoing diplomatic spat.

It should be appreciated that management of borders has increasingly become a challenge as neighboring countries take various measures to address the spread of the Coronavirus within their territories. There have been border issues, within the EAC, particularly in relation to cross-border truck drivers. For instance, there has been a challenge between the Kenya-Uganda border, as well as, between Rwanda and Tanzania. While in these two cited cases, we have seen respective countries, work towards mutual resolving of the issues, it is interesting, yet not surprising, how Tanzania has since responded to Kenya’s action and the ensuing fast deterioration of relations between the two nations.

As I mentioned earlier, there are historical differences between Kenya and Tanzania whose escalation is easily provoked by a number of incidences, some of which I have mentioned above. In fact, one could already see the current situation coming. Earlier in the month, one of Kenya’s leading TZ channel, Citizen TV, had to run a one-week apology to President Magufuli and Tanzania following the use of the phrase ‘ukaidi wa Magufuli’ (the stubbornness of Magufuli) in reference to President Magufuli’s refusal to take decisive measures to curb the spread of Coronavirus. Before, the current diplomatic spat, we equally had two Kenyan journalists arrested and detained in Tanzania for interviewing the people on the situation of Coronavirus in the country.

Following the said closure of the Kenya-Tanzania border, we have witnessed quick – and perceivably angry – reactions by Tanzanian leaders in reiteration, with President Magufuli mocking Kenya’s move to close the border. Perhaps the crossest reactions by a Tanzanian government official, to Kenya’s decision is one by Tanga regional Commissioner. Whereas Kenya’s closer of borders exempted cargo truckers on condition that they are tested and proved to be Covi-19 free, the Tanga regional Commissioner, ordered an immediate and blanket ban on any entry into Tanzania by Kenyans. In a video, that has since gone viral, and elicited heated debate in Kenya, the Tanzanian official said: “…hatuwezi sisi ruhusu waendelee kutoka Kenya na corona zao…” (we cannot keep allowing Kenyans to come here with their coronavirus). There have been numerous other reactions by Tanzanian government officials regarding this. In fact, Arusha regional Commissioner has accused Kenya of using Coronavirus to kill tourism in Tanzania. Even more worrying is the rise of the people-to-people animosity – which is now commonplace online – among citizens of these two countries, which risks raising xenophobic rhetoric that may end up being grossly detrimental.

At the moment, it is hard to tell how the fast-escalating diplomatic spat between Kenya and Tanzania will end. There are calls from and/or for both sides to explore – and quickly so – ways to de-escalate the situation. Speaking during a stop-over in Singida, President Magufuli has said that he has had a phone call with President Kenyatta and that he (Magufuli) has directed Tanzanian authorities to meet with their Kenyan counterparts to address border issues. One can only hope that a quick solution will be found. It may require lobbying and even third-party intervention as it happened during a past diplomatic row over tourism. Whichever way it ends, the strained relations between Kenya and Tanzania have, on the one hand, once again exposed the diplomatic faultiness of these neighboring countries, and on the other, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on inter-state relations within the EAC.

Worsening Kenya-Tanzania Relations over Coronavirus pandemic measures Worsening Kenya-Tanzania Relations over Coronavirus pandemic measures Reviewed by Ibrahim Magara on May 20, 2020 Rating: 5

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