“I have received many invitations to visit different countries, including countries in Europe, but when Rwanda invited me, I couldn’t say no,” Tanzania’s president John Magufuli remarked during his maiden foreign trip to Rwanda. The people of Rwanda and his host President Paul Kagame cheered these remarks on. President Magufuli chose Rwanda for his first foreign trip. Much was said about President Magufuli’s foreign policy when he marked 100 days in office. In my analysis of his first 100 days with particular focus on diplomacy and foreign policy I had hitherto been critical of his approach. But Magufuli’s choice of Rwanda as his first foreign visit was ideal and well calculated.
In the US, there is a long and proud tradition for Canada being the first foreign visit for a US president. Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush however visited Mexico for their first foreign visits. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W.H. Bush all visited Canada in their first official foreign trips. Tanzania does not have a tradition but just like the US and many other countries first foreign trips for Tanzanian presidents have always been to countries that enjoy strong historical ties with Tanzania.
President Magufuli’s first international trip comes five months since taking office and in typical Magufuli fashion he traveled by road to Rwanda. When asked why he traveled by road he said, “I love to cut costs”. President Magufuli’s trip to Rwanda is meant to strengthen Rwanda-Tanzania ties and also to commemorate the 22nd Genocide memorial. During his visit President Magufuli and his host President Kagame opened the Rusumo One-Stop-Border Post, which is a key structure, aimed at bolstering trade between the two countries. This infrastructural project is under the Central Corridor plan, which connects Rwanda to Tanzania’s port in Dar es Salaam.
President Kagame has warmed up more to Tanzania since Magufuli was elected in October 2015. Rwanda ties with Tanzania had thawed in the latter stages of President Jakaya Kikwete’s term in office. The two countries have enjoyed sound diplomatic relations which has seen Tanzania hosting the peace talks of 1993 between the then Hutu government and the then rebel Tutsi outfit of RPA. After the unfortunate Rwandan Genocide of 1994, Tanzania has hosted the UN International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha. President Kikwete during the 50th anniversary of the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2013, called on Rwanda to negotiate with the FDLR rebel outfit because according to him “military efforts had failed”. This did not augur well with Rwanda and Louise Mushikiwabo, the Rwandan Foreign Minister described Kikwete’s remarks as “aberrant” and “shocking”. A war of words between the two states ensued with President Kagame allegedly publicly threatened to hit president Kikwete. The then Foreign Minister of Tanzania Bernard Membe told Parliament “The president will not apologize because his statement was based on facts”. Membe further infuriated Rwanda by claiming that the M23 rebel outfit in DR Congo are Rwandan citizens and are being funded by the Rwandan government. The frosty relationship went on when Ally Mkumbwa, the then Acting Head of Government Communications Unit in the Foreign Affairs Ministry told Kagame that “You will be whipped like a small boy”. However, President Kikwete in August 2013 in a speech in parliament affirmed that Rwanda-Tanzania ties are strong and “nothing has changed”. Also in 2013 Tanzania expelled Rwandans leaving in Tanzania
President Kagame has warmed up to President Magufuli and in early March 2016 commended Magufuli’s cost-cutting measures. He also echoed Magufuli’s remarks on the excessive spending in the EAC. Kagame said that the EAC was “too expensive and extravagant” and warned his ministers from periodic travels to the Headquarters in Arusha. Kagame’s no-nonsense leadership style also resonates with that of Magufuli and the meeting can be described as a meeting of like-minded individuals. The warming up of relations between Tanzania and Rwanda is a welcome one and as Rwanda’s Foreign Minister says “we look to a better future for our people”.