Tanzania’s President John Magufuli’s state visit to Kenya on Monday is a high stakes affair for both countries with Nairobi expected to roll out the red carpet as it seeks to reset relations with Dar es Salaam.
Top on the agenda will be trade relations between the two neighbours.
A series of high-profile incidents have strained ties between the countries since Dr Magufuli came to power last year.
The most remarkable was his absence at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Nairobi which attracted heads of state and government from across the continent. This left tongues wagging about the status of relations between the two East African giants.
The Tanzanian leader has only travelled to Uganda and Rwanda since coming to power last October.
Tanzania has previously been accused of putting non-trade barriers on Kenyans including delay of work permits and slow licensing. Kenyan companies operating in the country have also complained of being treated harshly.
In July, Tanzania said it will not sign the Economic Partnership Agreement between the East African Community and the European Union, a landmark deal aimed at giving regional states, as a bloc, duty-free and quota-free market access into the EU.
In 2015, the two countries were involved in a trade row following a ban on Kenyan tour vans from accessing Tanzanian parks. Kenya reciprocated by barring Dar buses from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Much recently, Tanzania has given a regional initiative meant to facilitate access to all member states using a uni-visa a wide berth.
It has also refused to open up her border at the Mara River to allow movement of tourists flocking the region for the historic wildebeest migration.
And in May, Tanzanian authorities confiscated the passports of Kenyan officials who were in Tanga with a team of Ugandan officials working on an analysis of proposed routes for a multi-billion-dollar crude oil pipeline, denying them access to the port in an embarrassing diplomatic incident.
The Ugandans eventually decided to build its crude export pipeline through Tanzania instead of Kenya.
Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda had also tellingly formed a partnership outside the East African Community nicknamed the Coalition of the Willing (CoW).
On the shadow of these incidents which have been seen to strain relations between the two countries, the Tanzanian leader nicknamed “Bulldozer” has earned staunch admirers among Kenyans for spearheading a spirited crackdown on corruption and instilling discipline in the Tanzanian public sector.
Under his widely-known motto “hapa kazi tu” which in English translates to “only work matters,” Mr Magufuli,after sweeping to victory, embarked on a purge of corruption.
This has seen him fire tainted officials such as Ports Authority Director General Awadhi Massawef and anti-corruption chief Edward Hoseah besides banning non-essential foreign travel for politicians, and business class flights for all but the most senior figures.
He is known for personally visiting ministries and state departments to ensure that staff are at their desks.
His exploits and hands-on governance triggered a popular social media rallying call in Kenya and regional states titled #WhatWouldMagufuliDo — as regional citizens highlighted, albeit with a light touch, his crackdown.
Ahead of the landmark visit, the Kenyan business community made known its wish list for Mr Magufuli even as experts warned of a full in-tray of issues that the Tanzania leader and his host President Uhuru Kenyatta must tackle together for the visit to be to be meaningful.
“I am hoping this visit might prove an opportunity to reset relations and seek better alignment between our two countries. There is so much to be gained from being collaborative rather than adversarial — President Kenyatta has a ‘Bill Clinton charm’ and if I were advising him I would say ‘look, reach in, cut through the noise and start telling the Bulldozer that it needn’t be a zero sum game,” said economic analyst and chief executive of Rich Management Aly-Khan Satchu.
“Our relationship with our neighbour has been sub-optimal for a very long time. There is an opportunity here to reset relations – I hope we can seize it.”Mr Satchu said that President Magufuli has captured the East African imagination with his no-nonsense and populist style.
“He has some serious feathers in his cap already (the pipeline and the railway are two very big “geopolitical” wins right there) so we need to treat him as a worthy and already proven adversary,” said Mr Satchu.