Thursday, June 14, 2012


Bob Wekesa

This July, Beijing will be rolling out the red carpet for African leaders during the fifth edition of the triennial Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In all likelihood, Tanzania will be represented by President Jakaya Kikwete, affably referred to as JK even in international circles. Talk to Chinese diplomats and the JK charm will draw equally chummy responses not just about the leader but also the nation.

Of African countries, Tanzania enjoys particularly close ties with Beijing. One could say South African ties with China are tight on account of both countries being in the BRICS group. But then competition between China and South Africa for trade and economic deals on the African continent is probably at its fiercest. Zimbabwe and the Sudan too are unambiguously close to China. But then both countries need the counterweight of China to survive being categorised as rogue states.

With Tanzania, the multi-layer ties with China are not motivated by any dire circumstances that would necessitate a look-East policy on a nearly zero-sum basis.

Of the African leaders who have defended China against charges of pursuing a neo-colonial project in Africa, Mr Kikwete has been one of the most forthright. He is joined in this by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Ahmed Omar Saddiq al-Bashir of Sudan and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Fielding a question from a journalist, perhaps framed to trip him up in December 2011, Mr Kikwete said: “Africa needs a market for its products. Africa needs technology for its development. China is ready to provide all that. What is wrong with that?”

This forthrightness perhaps springs from the special relations Tanzania has enjoyed with China since independence partly because Tanzania, unlike neighbouring Kenya and a handful of other African nations, took the socialist path in the immediate post-independence era and was therefore on the same wavelength with the then newly-minted People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party of China.

Tanzania-China relations run deep, thanks to the 1,800 kilometre Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara) that was built by China in the 1970s.

The project was made possible by the fact that the ideologies of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and China’s revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Zedong dovetailed. One of the factors that made the rail line urgent was that newly-independent Zambia had a hard time transporting exports and imports via the Indian Ocean through Zimbabwe, which was still under colonial rule.

The Nyerere-Zedong-Kaunda solidarity was thus informed as much by ideological persuasions as with straightforward economics.

Today Kikwete, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Zambian President Michael Sata aka ‘King Cobra’ find themselves on the same side of the equation for different reasons. Of the five East African Community member states, Tanzania continues to hog most of Chinese investment, with the investment in the mining sector worth $3bn announced last year being the biggest in the region yet.

The historical ties between China and Tanzania are evident in Beijing, where a substantial number of middle-aged and elderly Chinese still speak the flawless Kiswahili they learned on the Tazara project or on many other solidarity missions such as teaching, medical assistance, agricultural projects and others in the 1960s. Last year, China Radio International collaborated with the Tanzanian national broadcaster on a Chinese-to-Kiswahili soap opera—Mother in law—that was reportedly very popular.

In April 2012, Tanzania joined the ranks of the few countries where the traditional Chinese tomb cleaning ceremony, Qingming, has been held, in this case in commemoration of the 64 Chinese workers who died during the arduous task of building the Tazara. The staying power of the Tazara project is captured in Jamie Monsoon’s Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese development project changed lives and livelihoods in Tanzania, published in 2011.

By coincidence, the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania is also the permanent representative to the East Africa Community, which is based in the third largest city in Tanzania, Arusha.

Tanzania played a very active role in China’s re-admission to the UN in 1971 and was the bulwark of South-South cooperation and the Non Aligned Movement on the African continent. The Tanzanian ambassador to the UN at the time, later foreign minister and still later OAU secretary general, Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, is said to have jumped up and down in sheer elation when the UN General Assembly endorsed the return of China to the UN. Such are the relations going into FOCAC five.

The writer is a Kenyan journalist studying at Communication University of China


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