When President Samia assumed office about a year ago, two main priorities – stabilising a traumatised nation, and normalising relations with the international community – lay in front of her. However, most reflections on her first year in office have focused on the first priority, and paid cursory, and largely uncritical attention to the second objective. This commentary is an attempt to bridge that analytical gap.
There is no doubt that a lot of work has been done over the last year to restore the country’s traditional approach to its foreign policy. Foreign Affairs Minister, Ambassador Liberata Mulamula, described in August 2021 the overall task that has taken most of the regime’s time as one of ‘resurrecting and strengthening’ diplomacy. This is the closest the administration has got to publicly admitting that its predecessor threw away nearly all diplomatic etiquette.
President Samia spelt out her foreign policy vision during a maiden speech to the National Assembly in April 2021. Through the speech, she made a commitment to ‘strengthen’ and ‘deepen’ relations with other nations, in line with the country’s policy on economic diplomacy. Apart from announcing plans to open new embassies and consulates, she also revealed plans to carry out a focused assessment to determine each Mission’s economic diplomacy potential, and review the country’s foreign policy to ensure it reflects current imperatives.
Tanzania’s steady return to the diplomacy arena, after five years of half-hearted engagement, counts as the clearest and most significant shift in the country’s foreign policy under President Samia. This dynamic is also a source of vital clues for discerning her regime’s foreign policy doctrine. Unlike her predecessor (who detested the global power hierarchy, and was highly suspicious of multilateralism), the current President comes across as a staunch believer of the liberal, Western-dominated international order.
However, the belief is largely instrumental, since it is primarily informed by a sense of what the nation can garner from its engagement with the rest of the world. It is notable that aid and concessional loans have, for instance, been cited repeatedly and proudly as a key justification for the President’s trips abroad. The situation has not been helped by a political opposition that has based its critique of foreign policy on costs, rather than overall strategy and vision.
The President’s approach to domestic politics, as embodied by her gentle treatment of the opposition, espouses fundamental liberal values such as tolerance of political differences, compromise and dialogue. This is an indication that the regime’s (liberal) ideological inclination has deeper roots, and current foreign policy reform efforts are driven by interests and efficiency needs, and not the desire for a foundational shift.
Enhancing economic diplomacy
President Samia’s speeches over the last year point to a leader that is keen on enhancing economic diplomacy, in order to stimulate growth, and sustain investments in social and physical infrastructure. Like her predecessor, a greater focus on economic diplomacy entails an emphasis on the country’s (economic) interests, often at the expense of values.
The recent abstention from a United Nation’s motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, reflects a two decades shift that has been characterised by other developments such as the strengthening of relations with Israel, and Morocco, without any serious regard for implications on the Palestine and Western Sahara questions. While our diplomats often cite consistency in voting records on the latter as evidence that the country’s position has not changed (and that values still matter), they have always failed to provide a convincing explanation to the argument that such a shift is a typical case of economic interests prevailing over values.
The shift towards an overwhelming emphasis on economic interests (as ‘core’ interests) is a dynamic that took place at the turn of the 21st century, following the introduction of a new foreign policy on economic diplomacy. However, the seeds of this significant change had been sowed two decades earlier (in the 1980s), especially in the aftermath of the Kagera war. The war laid bare (in a way not seen before) the costs of foreign policy activism, particularly for a relatively poor country such as Tanzania, and signaled the need for a new era.
Proponents of the ‘new’ direction agenda got the opportunity to pursue it in the 1990s, as the Berlin Wall crumbled and liberated polities proliferated in Southern Africa. What was adopted in 2001 as the new foreign policy on economic diplomacy, effectively elevated economic interests as the core national interests, and thus downgraded other non-economic (mainly humanistic and moralistic) interests.
Recent actions in relation to Mozambique (ambivalent support), Ukraine (abstention), Israel and Morocco (strengthening of ties) need to be viewed and understood in this context.
The quagmire between interests and values
The sixth phase regime has inherited a foreign policy with a serious limitation, and there is no indication that the quagmire between interests and values has been given the attention it deserves.
In her speech to the Parliament, President Samia announced her government’s intention to review the 2001 policy, to ensure it embodies current imperatives, such as global security threats, and climate change. So far, progress has been slow and characterised by a very limited public discourse. With this approach, foreign policy will largely remain a preserve of the elite.
The spirit of the review suggests a sheer desire to broaden the scope of the policy. While this is necessary, those leading the review process need not forget that one of the key limitations of the current foreign policy has been its idealism deficit. Tanzania used to lead the world in imagining a different future, particularly in Africa. The country’s purpose, beyond securing the welfare of its own citizens, used to be very clear and compelling. While there is no point in seeking to relive the past, our future intentions and ambitions need to be informed by our exemplary past.
Literature describes the first twenty years of independence (1961-1981) as the pinnacle of Tanzania’s diplomacy. This was a highly idealistic period, characterised by Nyerere’s strong moral and visionary leadership. Tanzania did not stand out internationally in this period because of its economy or military (neither was strong enough), but due to its principled (and morally superior) solidarity and support for the oppressed. The 2001 foreign policy supposedly reaffirmed the principles that had informed this policy orientation, but its overwhelming emphasis on economic interests suppressed idealism altogether.
In a world where states are inclined to focus on their narrow economic and security interests, Tanzania can stand out (again) by learning from its golden years of diplomacy, and being deliberate about striking a visionary balance between interests and values. This is a challenge that entails revisiting the country’s purpose, beyond securing the welfare of its citizens.
Dastan Kweka is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Dar es Salaam. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @KwekaKweka. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Would you like to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.