But what are the real opportunities and the rituals?
Kampala, Uganda | JULIUS BUSINGE | If holding hands, beaming smiles, and signing piles of Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) is a measure, then Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli’s visit to Uganda from Nov.9 – 11 was a total success. The brotherly romance between the 58-year old Magufuli and his host, 73-year old Yoweri Museveni was encouraging to observe. It was even more significant following years of less-enthusiastic leadership on regional issues from Tanzania under Magufuli’s predecessor, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete.
The result has been an adverse trade balance for Uganda. For instance, in 2017 Uganda has so far imported 191 million tons of goods from Tanzania valued at Shs617 billion. On the other hand Tanzania has imported only 52 million tons of goods valued at Shs251 billion.
Magufuli’s visit coincided almost exactly with the end of his second year in office. He was sworn in on November 05, 2015. His host, President Yoweri Museveni, has meanwhile been president in office for 31years – since 1986. So, as Magufuli enthusiastically strolled from one agreement signing to another ground-breaking ceremony with the energy of a new manager, Museveni’s rather lethargic gait of a long-service leader who has seen this before was unmistakable.
The contrast has since led some pundits to claim that the activity during the visit was a mere ritual and political posturing for one leader and serious business for the other.
Fred Mukasa Mbidde, an elected member of the 3rd East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) belongs to the skeptical crowd.
“Presidents visit each other and posture as being serious but end up not implementing what they discuss,” he told The Independent on Nov.10.
To him Magufuli’s visit to Uganda was just like any other ordinary activity aimed at boosting bi-lateral relationships of the two Presidents “that won’t yield much results”.
But many say something tangible could be happening in the East African region coming from Tanzania under Magufuli.
Isaac Shinyekwa, the renowned research fellow and commentator on trade and regional integration issues from the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) at Makerere University in Kampala says Magufuli’s visit presents an opportunity for Uganda and the EAC integration process.
He said, however, that Magufuli’s visit also “provides space for the two presidents to remind themselves about unfulfilled promises and find ways of delivering on them”.
“Magufuli is a serious leader and his visit means he supports the EAC integration process,” Shinyekwa says, “We should not read the initiatives being launched by the heads of state as rituals.
“The Presidents are serious; they want to do business.”
On the face of it, Shinyekwa is right because the presidents signed various protocols and launched numerous processes related to bilateral cooperation on energy, transport, tourism, trade and investment, infrastructure, and security. Protocols were signed on Trade promotion and reduction of non-tariff barriers, infrastructure development on roads, railways, waterways, and oil, and cross-border energy and electrification projects.
But Mbidde says instead of rushing to sign protocols, the presidents need to first settle internal political differences within their countries to ensure that regional projects being commissioned and planned under the EAC integration arrangement succeed.
Mbidde says, for Uganda, the current controversial move to amend Article 102b of the Constitution to extend Museveni’s rule is causing political uncertainty and is negatively impacting on the economy. He said Uganda could join Burundi, South Sudan, and Kenya which are politically divided and prospects for peace are in doubt.
For Kenya, Mbidde says, President elect, Uhuru Kenyata, will not find it easy to implement economic projects amidst claims by a powerful opposition that he was illegitimately elected. This is in addition to the economic war the opposition has called for. As the debate over the usefulness of the Magufuli visit rages, there are people; especially traders, who have more practical concerns.
Issa Sekito, the spokesperson of Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) says although the two presidents spoke of easing trade between the two countries, trade barriers remain the at border.
Sekito says even as Magufuli visited, 25 traders had reported to his office that Tanzania customs authorities at Mutukula border were holding their goods over what he called “simple quality issues”.
Sekito wants the provisions of the EAC Customs Union to be implemented, especially total removal of charge of import duty on goods made in East Africa using local raw materials.
“What the Presidents launch should tally with what they are implementing,” he says.
Generally, going by the discussions and by implementing the resolutions that came up from the meetings of the two heads of state and their junior officials, Magufuli’s visit could promote trade, create jobs, and strengthen the economies.