Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu and her Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta took decisive steps this week to put a frosty past behind them and shift focus to the promise of a new dawn in relations.
At the end of her two-day state visit to Kenya, Samia and Uhuru announced a deal to build a pipeline to convey Tanzanian gas to Kenya. They also agreed to boost cross-border investment by dismantling barriers to bilateral trade.
In a region where firewood is still the primary source of energy for more than half the population, the gas deal reminds one of just how much energy is stranded on the continent because there are no pipelines to transfer it from areas of abundance to areas of deficit. Apart from the West African Gas Pipeline that connects Nigeria's Niger Delta with Benin, Togo and Ghana and the 865km Mozambique National Pipeline Company that has been taking Mozambican gas to South Africa since 2004, the other pipeline projects, including the Dar-Kampala pipeline and now the Dar-Mombasa pipeline, remain mere proposals on paper.
The proposed projects tap into a huge continental market and are critical for resource-rich countries to monetise otherwise stranded resources. To take off, however, they will not only need money and political will, but also harmonised regional policy and regulatory regime. After the fanfare, this will be the real measure of the success or failure of Samia and Uhuru's forward-looking commitments. Easing travel and communications for Tanzanians by joining the East African One Network Area and accepting national identity documents for travel are low-hanging fruit.
President Samia should be lauded for taking bold steps to move out of her predecessors' shadow. Her move breathes new life into a stalled regional integration project. Her decision to open her country to the rest of the region demonstrates that it is possible to overcome historical differences if leaders open up their minds to the possibilities that the future offers. Tanzania and Kenya have a long history of hostility. It dates to the ideological differences of the 1960s.
At one time, founding fathers Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere verbally sparred, with the latter describing Kenya as a "man-eat-man society" and Kenyatta calling Tanzania a "man-eat-nothing society". That triggered the rivalry that led to the collapse of the East African Community in 1977. Despite a revival, Tanzania remained lukewarm to the EAC project. Intraregional trade suffered hiccups as Tanzania sparred with its neighbours. President John Magufuli's isolationist policy needs to be looked at in that contest. Some of those policies are fairly popular at home and President Samia and her northern neighbours will need to make sure that her move to open up delivers quick dividend, if it is to be domestically embraced.
There are lessons in both Magufuli and Samia's approaches. Isolation worked to the extent that it enabled Tanzania to achieve critical mass in domestic production. After that Tanzania needs markets for its surplus. That is a message President Samia will need to drive hard to her domestic audience. After critical mass is gained, they will need trade partners.
Samia has a unique opportunity to reset East African relations by getting her country out of the cold. But Mugufuli's isolationist stance is a cautionary tale that without equity, integration risks a long and winding path to Mecca.