Tanzania celebrated fifty years anniversary of independence last Friday. A week earlier, the East African Community Summit had met in Bujumbura, Burundi to discuss, among other things, the East African federation.
The catch phrase among federation enthusiasts in the last decade has been “fast-tracking” the process. At the Bujumbura Summit, Tanzania put the brakes on that movement as it has done since the idea was resurrected. What‘s the hurry for, Tanzanian leaders asked
For a long time Tanzania has, to varying degrees, been associated with the idea of federation of East Africa. But with regard to9 the very idea of political union, the Tanzania of today is completely different from the Tanganyika of fifty years ago or the United Republic of Tanzania that followed.
Tanganyika fifty years ago was perhaps the most pro federalist of the East African countries. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere famously offered to delay Tanganyika’s independence if that could facilitate the formation of an East African federation. That was, of course, part of his thinking on greater African unity – that it could be attained by first building regional blocs that could later come together into an African Union of sorts. It was also part of his wider Pan-African view in which he saw the liberation of the whole continent as a necessary precondition for an eventual union.
It was for this reason that Tanzania became home to many liberation movements. It is difficult to see that happening today in an increasingly inward-looking Tanzania.
Half a century later, the leadership in Tanzania is the least enthusiastic about federation. Where Mwalimu Nyerere sought to remove obstacles to federation, today’s leaders place numerous barriers in its path.
And it is not Tanzania alone that has changed its attitude to the idea of a political union of East African countries.
At the time of independence Uganda was the most reluctant about federation. Various diverse interests, not always mutually accommodating, converged in their opposition to a political union of the region. President Milton Obote was concerned about fading into oblivion if he was to play in the same political space as the more respected and philosophical Nyerere and the better-known Jomo Kenyatta. The Kabaka of Buganda feared submersion and loss of prominence in a wider union.
Of course, they did not put their objections in these crass selfish terms. They couched them in the need to protect the national interest.
Kenya, then as now, was aware of the benefits of federation to its more advanced industry and also the resentment this caused among the other countries. Quite understandably it did not, and still does not, push too hard for federation.
That task has been taken up by Uganda, arguably the most enthusiastic country in East Africa about creating an East African Federation as soon as possible. Some argue that it is not Uganda, but President Yoweri Museveni who is actually very keen on fast federation so that he can lead it.
Whatever the reason for wanting to fast track the federation, Uganda has shifted from an opponent to the most ardent supporter while Tanzania has moved from warm enthusiasm to foot-dragging.
So, what is behind this reversal where proponent turns opponent and vice versa?
Arguments for closer union remain the same and largely accepted as valid – a large market for regional industries and to attract foreign investment, a stronger voice in international affairs and a bigger role in global geopolitics.
Reasons against are less convincing. And as in all such cases what are said in public are dressed in nationalist garb. The real reasons remain private and are crudely connected to power.
Today Tanzania has similar fears to what Uganda had nearly fifty years ago – being swamped by hordes of foreigners and losing its identity and influence.
In public they argue that the original dynamics on which the premise of an East African Federation was built have changed with the introduction of new members Rwanda and Burundi. They fear that land grabbers from Kenya and land-starved Rwandans and Burundians will descend on their idle land and carve it among themselves.
The spectre of Kenyan manufactures flooding Tanzanian markets, Ugandan and Rwandan cattle keepers roaming the empty plains colours national thinking and elicits irrational response3s.
However, similar fears have not been raised about land-seeking farmers from Southern Africa, or industries from that region. The fears are therefore probably more than what is stated in public.
But in any case there are in fact advantages to be gained from these so-called invasions. Imagine the meat, leather and related industries that can be built on the “foreign” cattle. Or the increased production on hitherto unused land. Or the jobs and more incomes from all the increased economic activity – all taking place in Tanzania.
And with the possible admission into the East African Community of other countries with even bigger unutilised tracts of land, the feared invasion of its territory by neighbours should not arise.
The real impediment to federation seems to hinge around concerns for its own union with Zanzibar. The Union has always been strained. In the last decade or so it has been severely tested. A federation of East Africa might Mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar joining as separate members. The likely dissolution of the United Republic of Tanzania is something Tanzanian leaders cannot countenance.
That is the real stumbling block; not Rwandans or others grabbing land.