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Is Tanzania ousting Kenya as East Africa's powerhouse?

Loveday Wright May 20, 2016

Less than a year after President Magufuli took office, Tanzania is already gaining influence among its neighbors and moving away from its reputation as a lone ranger in the region. So what does this mean for Kenya?

Tansania Präsident John Magufuli
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

Despite having the largest population in East Africa, Tanzania has often been sidelined in regional politics. While Kenya's influence surged, Tanzania was accused of being too slow and cautious when it came to plans for regional integration and infrastructure.

But since John Magufuli's surprise election win last October, it seems Kenya could be losing its grip on East African politics as Tanzania increasingly presents itself as a viable alternative for regional cooperation.

Karte Ostafrikanische Gemeinschaft Englisch

Infrastructure projects

Just last week, the Ugandan government announced it would route the country's valuable oil exports through Tanzania rather than Kenya, opting for a pipeline to the Tanzanian port city of Tanga.

A report commissioned by the Ugandan government in March found that the pipeline route through Tanzania was cheaper and would be in operation more quickly than the Kenyan option. The decision was a blow for Kenya, which will now have to go through with its own ambitious oil pipeline project alone, or find new partners.

An international railway project, championed by Kenya, has also come up against difficulties as regional players consider their options. Widespread media reports claimed that Rwanda was pulling out of plans to develop rail links to Indian Ocean ports through Kenya in favor of routes through Tanzania. But the Rwandan government has now said it plans to continue with both routes.

Magufuli's new approach

The readiness of Uganda and Rwanda to embark on projects and agreements with Tanzania, particularly when it means breaking off deals with Kenya, is a mark of the shift of influence within the region. Kenyan political analyst and commentator Martin Oloo told DW that President Magufuli's pragmatic, hands-on approach is making this possible. "It is changing the way business can be done: in a more efficient and effective way," he said.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame shakes hands with President Magufuli
President Magufuli visited his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame last monthImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

One of Magufuli's key policies is cracking down on corruption. "What is endearing him to his own people and perhaps what is making sense economically for the region is that business can be done in cheaper ways, business can be done by minimizing corruption," Oloo said. "And corruption is expensive, so countries where there is runaway corruption, like in Kenya. That's impeding its competitiveness, its impeding its relevance within the region," he added.

Stability and growth

But Tanzania's recent political gains are not only down to Magufuli's leadership style. The country has enjoyed a steady growth rate of 6 - 7 percent over the past decade and is already starting to overtake Kenya economically. "Magufuli's performance will only be helping that to happen faster," Oloo said.

Despite widespread poverty, long term political stability has provided a solid foundation for growth and development. "You can decide to look at Kenya as a powerhouse maybe on the economic side, but you've got to accept that Tanzania is a powerhouse in terms of stabilizing these countries," said Richard Shaba, Program Coordinator at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Tanzania, a German political foundation. "We take most of the refugees. We do most of the reconciliation whenever these countries have a problem," Shaba told DW.

When it comes to stability, Kenya is struggling. Security has become a growing fear, not only for Kenyans but also investors. The country's border with Somalia makes it vulnerable to attacks from Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, making Tanzania an attractive alternative.

Kenyan police carry the body of a man killed in an al-Shabab attack
Kenyan police deal with casualties following an al-Shabab attack on a village on Kenya's border with Somalia last yearImage: Reuters/Stringer

What's next for East Africa?

In the face of these difficulties, Kenya will now have to up its game if it wants to retain its regional strength. "What should be worrying Kenyans is that we need to take on runaway corruption, we need to improve efficiency, we need to make ourselves competitive within the region," said analyst Oloo. "And unless we do that, then our neighbors like Tanzania and Rwanda are actually going to run away with the opportunities."

If the latest developments in terms of regional cooperation are anything to go by, that is already happening. But according to Richard Shaba, even Magufuli's unconventional approach won't completely change Tanzania's traditionally guarded politics when it comes to cooperation and integration in East Africa.

"I think Tanzania will pursue more or less the same regional politics - being a bit cautious - because when the East African Community collapsed in 1977 we got our fingers burned very badly," he told DW. "Willingness is always there, but the approach will be cautious."