Tanzania must learn to be a good neighbour: the perspective from Uganda

Published: 16 Sep 2013
By: Dismas Nkunda

Just when we thought that our neighbour, Tanzania, was about to rethink its current policy of expelling other nationals from its soil, another problem came up. The latest news coming out of Tanzania is that some 25,000 Burundians were summarily rounded up and told to go back to Burundi. In addition, apparently 10,000 teachers from Kenya have also been asked to pack their bags and leave.

Initially one would have thought that the anger coming from Dar es Salaam was triggered by the events in May at the African Union summit, where President Jakaya Kikwete advised President Paul Kagame to hold peace talks with his enemies, the FDLR rebels in DR Congo. Relations between the two countries became a serious concern for the other East African leaders which, in turn, led to Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda deciding to push on with the integration process of the East African Community without Tanzania. With threats and counter threats between Dar and Kigali, it became clear from a regional perspective that the two presidents still did not see eye to eye.

Then at the recent International Conference of the Great Lakes Region summit in Kampala, Kikwete and Kagame once more sat in the same room and it seemed like the matter had been put to rest. But now with the latest expulsion of the Burundians, this is clearly not the case.

The expulsion of the Burundians is particularly upsetting given that several years ago, President Kikwete had told the United Nations that he was willing to grant tens of thousands of Burundian refugees (those who had fled, or whose families had fled, in the early 1970s) citizenship, just as the late Julius Nyerere had offered naturalisation to hundreds of Rwandan refugees decades ago. Yet as recent events have now confirmed, there are question marks regarding the government’s commitment to this process.

Indeed, last year I was in Tanzania to speak about the plight of the Burundian refugees who had been offered citizenship but were in legal limbo because they had been accepted for naturalization by the government, but the regional authorities in Tanzania were crying foul that they had not been consulted and wanted the Burundians transferred to other areas in Tanzania. (see IRRI report here) At the meeting, held at the University of Dar es Salaam, one of the speakers said that Tanzanians were wary of offering citizenship to Burundians for fear that they would do what Rwandans did in 1994. Apparently when Julius Nyerere offered citizenship to the Rwandans, they were naturalised and stayed in the country until the Rwanda Patriotic Front took over power in Rwanda, at which point they returned to Rwanda.

Yet if we are to move forward as a region, surely this is precisely the type of movement we should expect – and embrace. After all, given the relationships between the border communities in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, there will always be some movements to and from any of these countries, not least in a context in which many communities are pastoralists and their animals do not know borders: they just follow the water and the grass.

Indeed, the government of Tanzania’s original offer resonated with the direction in which the region is supposed to be heading with the creation of an East African Community. And one of the tenets of the EAC framework is the right to movement and the right of residence within the East African Community, of which Tanzania is a member.

Yet in practice, regional identities are easier in theory than in practice. On the ground, there have been concerns – particularly among Tanzanians – that the rest of East Africans are like hawks ready to pounce and take away jobs and resources from Tanzania. What is clear from Tanzania’s recent actions is that Tanzania, like any other modern-day country, will need to rethink its policies about how to relate to other countries – not least as, by virtue of its geographical positioning, any bad blood between Dar and the hinterland is likely to backfire against Dar. For instance, Rwanda recently increased border fees for trucks coming from the port of Dar es Salaam, something that almost created an economic crisis.

Quite apart from the human rights considerations around the expelling of Burundians and other nationals from Tanzania, these acts are likely to benefit no-one. At the end of the day, it is important that Tanzania – and the other countries in the EAC – focus on what they will gain rather than what they will lose through greater unity. And our leaders need to lead by example.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi, Tanzania
Type: IRRI Blog