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By Kipchumba Some
NAIROBI, KENYA: If the number and stature of foreign heads of governments that a country receives is a statement of its global importance, then Tanzania stands heads and shoulders above its regional neighbours including Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa.
Over the past 15 years, neighbouring Tanzania has received visits from three sitting US presidents. President Bill Clinton visited in 2000; George W Bush in 2008 and this week the White House announced that President Obama will visit in June as part of his African tour.
On the other hand, Kenya has never received an official visit from a sitting US president. The only sitting president to visit the country was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. And even that was a private visit infamously remembered for the wanton killing of wildlife he carried out.
The snub by the White House is suspected to be a reaction to the election of President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto both of whom are facing charges at the International Criminal Court.
But the Chinese too have come calling on Dodoma in recent times. After being sworn in to office, the new Chinese President Xi Jinping commenced his tour of African countries in Tanzania. His predecessor Hu Jintao also visited in 2009.
During those high-profile visits, Tanzania received from both countries billions of dollars in financial aid and grants. In his visit in 2008, President Bush signed off on nearly one billion dollar aid, the same amount that President Jinping gave the country recently.
Long a mere footnote in the global and regional geopolitics, Tanzania is suddenly drawing great interest from the world heavyweights. This development begs two questions: what exactly informs this interest and how will it change the geopolitical dynamics in the region ?
In response to the first question Prof Maria Nzomo, a former ambassador and a lecturer of international studies at the University of Nairobi, said the world powers are seeing in Tanzania something that they are not seeing in any other country here.
She links this interest to the Tanzanias political stability which has been sorely lacking in other countries in the region. Kenyas volatile political envorment has been its greatest undoing. Investors want predicatabilty and Tanzania gurantees them that, she said. In line with its ascendant role the region, it will not escape the attention of Kenyans that Tanzanias president Jakaya Kikwete was one of the world leaders who helped negotiate towards the end of the 2007-2008 post-election violence.
Bordered by nine countries to the eastern, southern and central sections of Africa, Prof Nzomo said that Tanzania has accumulated diplomatic capital by acting as a buffer to the fiercely competing interests in the region through its non-aggression policy.
It is instructive to note that Tanzania is a member of both the Southern Africa Development Community and the East African Community.
For the US which is keen to promote democracy and the rule of law in developing countries, Tanzania appears to be ticking the correct boxes. It changes its leadership regularly through free and fair elections by regional standards. It is one of the few countries in the world where religious tolerance exists well enough to permit the change of leadership alternately from Christian to Muslim presidents. It is a model of what the west would like to see in an African country, said Prof Nzomo.
However Prof Macharia Munene, a lecturer of history and international studies at the United States International University said that failure by the west to largely influence events in Kenya under President Kibaki forced them to search for another pliable partner in the region.
Kibakis government antagonised the west openly. It pursued a look-east policy aggressively much to the dismay of the west. It did not give them the space that they were used to. Tanzania became a much more easier country to do business with, he said.
Besides that is the fact that over President Kibakis 10 year reign, Kenya lost much of its regional diplomatic muscle. Laid back by nature, President Kibaki travelled only when necessary and nuances and intricacies of foreign policy did not seem his forte.
In the same period, Tanzania has had in President Kikwete, a relatively young president and a consumate diplomat who seems keen to stealthily reposition his country as the major economic and political player in the region.
China and Tanzania share a long history stretching back to the 15 th century when Chinese fishermen landed in the spice island of Zanzibar. But the Beijings renewed interest in Tanzania has to do with its hunger for resources to feed its growing economy.
The discovery of huge natural gas reverses off the coast of Tanzania has spiked interest in the country. Exploration done by several international firms have comfirmed that Tanzania could hold up to 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas of its Indian Ocean coast.
But Tanzanias mineral wealth is not limited to gas. The country has vast resources of gold, coal, cobalt, nickel, uranium, and iron. It is Africas fourth-largest producer of gold, which in recent months has hit near-record prices in international trading.
China needs all these minerals to sustain its growth. The port of Bagamoyo will grant it easy access to several landlocked but resource-rich countries in East, Southern and Central Africa, such as Malawi, the Congos, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. To observers, the port of Bagamoyo has economic implications for Kenya. When completed, the port will drastically affect revenues at the port of Mombasa which has been servicing most of these countries.
Some of these countries, in particular Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, have long complained about inefficiencies at the port of Mombasa, corruption and dispruptions brought about by political instabilities. The Bagamoyo project might just solve their problems.
However Prof Munene said that the discovery of oil in Turkana recently might yet tilt the balance of power in Kenyas favour. It is worthy to note that China too vying to build the new port at Lamu and the attendant infrastructure all the way to Ethiopia and South Sudan.