The Kenya-Tanzania ties have been rocky for years, starting with the now historical ideological differences arising from the Cold War. True, East Africa kicked off independence with advanced common institutions that should have advanced the economic bloc, but this was not to be. It is mostly thanks to bickering akin to the current stand-off between the countries that it initially collapsed.
To begin with, economic blocks are by nature prone to suspicions that should essentially be managed through set mechanism so that they don’t spin out of control. Indeed, we have seen model blocs especially the European Union rocked by major disputes culminating, for instance, in Brexit. Obviously, if that can happen to a bloc with mature institutions and advanced economies, there is a lot of room for a learning experience in regions like East Africa where democracy is constantly tested.
The immediate trigger of the tiff between Dar and Nairobi is treatment of the coronavirus. While Tanzania has been on the cross hairs of the World Health Organisation and the US for lack of co-operation and disclosures, Kenya — like Uganda and Rwanda — have taken a different path. They have instituted restrictions and are also vigilant in monitoring their borders. Dar on the other hand has stopped making public its infection cases and failed to bar public gatherings, which has spooked neighbours.
Zambia was the first to close its border with Tanzania. Kenya followed suit. Both actions are critical in curtailing the spread of the disease but at a great economic cost. Tanzania seems to prefer avoiding the economic damage, which might as well prove right.
However, that does not make precaution by the neighbours — including insistence on testing of truck drivers for Covid-19 — imprudent.
Whereas Dar has been piqued by the actions and the resultant delays in its trucks accessing the Kenya market, it is unclear whether it has blocked its borders to Nairobi trucks. Kenya’s Trade minister Adan Mohamed says the traffic is flowing either way. However, some of Dar officials — admittedly not very senior — have taken the jingoistic path, claiming to bar Kenyan trucks.
Both countries must work out best ways of resolving the emerging differences— even if it means joint testing — while minimising the hostilities. Let diplomacy and trade work flawlessly but not at the expense of public health and safety.