Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli who was in the country this week for a three-day State visit, will be remembered more for what he did not do while in the country than what he did.
Some of the highlights of his visit were bilateral talks he held with his Malawi counterpart Peter Mutharika as well as the opening of the tobacco auction floors in Lilongwe to mark the start of the tobacco buying season. Magufuli also announced that Tanzania would construct a new port at Mtwara that would facilitate easy connectivity for Malawi to Tanzania through Mbamba Bay. He also appealed for quick implementation of the one border post at Songwe-Kasumulu to facilitate improved trade between the two countries. The Tanzanian leader and his wife laid wreaths on a newly-erected statute of former president Bingu wa Mutharika.
However, the two leaders avoided the long-standing Lake Malawi border boundary dispute which at one point almost marred bilateral relations between the two countries. In 2015 the Malawi government announced Mutharika would use his trip to UNGA to meet Magufuli over the lake border issue. The much publicised meeting did not take place because Magufuli did not go to New York. Former Tanzania High Commissioner made no secret about her government’s interest in Lake Malawi also known as Lake Nyasa by Tanzanians. She observed that Tanzania wanted to have a share of the cake from the proceeds of the oil exploration activities that were underway on the lake. The oil explorations are still underway. It is against this background that Magufuli’s coming to Malawi for a State visit reignited the issue of the unresolved lake boundary.
Did Magufuli and Mutharika discuss the issue during their private talks? There is no knowing. This is after the Tanzania leader was reported that he did not want to take questions from the media. If true, this would be very strange. A president of a neighbouring country who is visiting for the first time, is hosted by the tax-payers, refuses to talk to media who are usually the voice of the public? Strange, if not an affront on the people of Malawi. Most likely, it is Mutharika who did not want to face the media.
Good protocol demands that the host president sees off his guest at the airport at the end of a successful State visit. If the arrangement was for Magufuli to speak to the press, the situation would have inevitably demanded that the two leaders hold a joint press conference. This is what Mutharika who has made a decision that during this campaign period, he and his running mate will not avail themselves for scrutiny by the media—wanted to avoid. They did just that during the presidential debates last month.
It is obvious the country’s prying media would have wanted to know the position of the two leaders on the unresolved lake dispute and corruption issues which Mutharika’s administration is yet to acquit itself from. But it is executive arrogance when a President does not want to be accountable to the people. So, for the two leaders’ silence on the lake issue we take it, it was not on the agenda.
The second thing Magufuli did not do for which he will be remembered for a long time is his failure to pay homage to the founding father of the Malawian nation after laying a wreath on the statute of the former president Bingu wa Mutharika. The Tanzanian leader’s earlier praises for the founding presidents of the two countries—Kamuzu and Julius Nyerere—in his own words “for setting a strong development foundation” were a subtle indictment on his host. Magufuli was only taken to Parliament building where he laid a wreath on the newly-erected statute of Bingu, the Malawi leader’s elder brother. For the credit he gave to Kamuzu, it is clear Magufuli would have gladly taken time to pay home to Kamuzu whose statute is only two kilometres away from the Parliament building in the same manner he did to Bingu. In fact, Mutharika would have scored some political mileage by doing that. The opportunities that the State visit offered Mutharika to score political mileage were for him to squander. This and the two leaders’ failure to discuss or disclose their position on the Lake Malawi boundary issue will be remembered long after the event becomes a mere statistic in the country’s history books.