While most of her East African counterparts remain cloistered at home in these pandemic-wracked times, Tanzania’s new President Samia Suluhu (and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta) has been stepping out.
She was in Uganda early April on a one-day visit to witness the signing of a tripartite deal to start the construction of the 1,440 kilometre-long crude oil pipeline from Uganda to the Tanzanian seaport of Tanga.
And she has just been to Nairobi on a two-day visit during which she and President Kenyatta inked a deal to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa.
After the euphoria that greeted her recently deceased predecessor John Magufuli in November 2015 when he donned an anti-corruption crusader’s cap, and the horror that followed his quick descent into a punisher, there is a palpable shyness in the region about celebrating promising gestures from new leaders.
Quietly, President Samia has turned her back on Magufuli’s Covid-denialism, and struck out in a more scientific direction. She made some measured comments about press freedom, and instructed the unbanning of a few outlets. The folks who were pummelled by Magufuli are beginning to come out of hiding.
On her Ugandan, and particularly Kenyan visit, she has finally begun to get nods of approval. The hashtag #AKiss4Suluhu trended in both Kenya and Tanzania on Wednesday. She won admiring gazes from investors at a Kenya-Tanzanian business meeting.
As a Kenyan businessman put it, “looks like this one will not flatter to deceive”. From an East African perspective, an early tentative reading of Samia is possible. Samia doesn’t have Uhuru’s backslapping jocular touch. She doesn’t launch into President Yoweri Museveni’s grand philosophising and earthly humour, and clearly is not one for Magufuli’s combative rhetoric or flirtation with the near-superstitious. She seems like a cross between Kenya’s former president Mwai Kibaki and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame; no drama, common-sensical, a just-get-the-job type of politician, topped off with Zanzibari merchant sensibility.
It will likely take another four to six months before any of this can be definite, but Tanzania could use a leader who isn’t, as the cartoonist Gado drew it, kneeling on its neck. It needs to breathe.
She will need to be unflappable in the face of the East Africa that will unfold in the coming months and few years. The DR Congo is likely to be admitted, even with observer status, into the East African Community by late next year. The EAC will become a very different animal.
If she serves two terms, she might be the only current leader who would still be in office — as regional stateswoman — when the full fruition of the DRC’s membership kicks in.
With DRC bringing a population of 90 million and a massive land size, the EAC would become the only regional bloc that straddles the continent, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
The $3.5 billion Uganda-Tanzania pipeline would also hand her the type of leverage no East African country has had over a neighbour. It’s the kind of power that should never be in intemperate hands. There must be many people on their knees praying that she doesn’t do a Magufuli.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]