What do I have against Tanzania? Nothing; just stating the facts

Thursday December 31 2020
Tanzania pic
By Charles Makakala

After I had published an article hailing Ethiopia for its economic transformation, someone challenged me by asking why don’t I speak in such glowing terms about Tanzania? What do I have against Tanzania?

To get it out of the way, nothing would give me more pleasure as to shout about my own country from the roof tops, but I don’t think we have learnt the lessons that others have, especially those in the East who have managed to transition from the Third World into the First World.

Economic growth is no longer a mystery today. There are many nations that have sustained strong economic growth for decades that we can learn from. The list includes nations such as – from Asia: South Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.; from Latin America: Chile, Costa Rica, and Colombia; and probably some from Africa too.

While factors that led to growth in these nations vary considerably, there are a few constants in all of them, and this is where I believe that we in Tanzania ought to pay more attention.

We can start by saying that nations which have performed well economically did so by integrating their economies with the West (yes, that includes China too!) Conversely, nations which have performed poorly have generally tried to disengage from the West. That group includes rogue nations such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and even Russia. It does not work.

By the mid 1400s, China was the strongest nation in the world. It commanded 50 percent of the world’s GDP – a feat which would only be matched by the United States 500 years later. In 1405, the Chinese emperor commissioned the first of seven naval voyages under the command of Admiral Zheng He. Zheng’s expeditions became the stuff of legend – his fleet had over 300 ships, the biggest wooden ships in history, holding 28,000 men, and they went as far as India and East Africa. This was ancient China at its most glorious.


But then, just as the Portuguese were about to start their voyages of discovery in the other side of the world, the Chinese took an isolationist path. They banned further naval and land expeditions and hastened the completion of the Great China Wall to separate itself from the northern Mongolian nomads. The result is that Portugal, and the West, grew from strength to strength, while China stagnated until its economic transformation four decades ago. The lesson is - isolationism doesn’t work.

Now, the problem with Tanzania is not isolationism per se, but confrontational, reactionary or antagonistic positions against outsiders, mainly Westerners. In the words of one Scandinavian ambassador, paraphrased: we are too unpredictable. International business requires predictability – legal, political, economic, financial, etc.

These issues have roots in our leftist and Nyererean thinking. We broke up diplomatic relations with the UK and then Israel in the 60s and 70s, thinking that we were standing up for humanity, only to find ourselves isolated and crawling back. Our naivety cost us significantly economically.

In China’s case, its relationship with the West was initially defined by Cold War mistrusts. But when China’s relations with Russia soured, it turned to the West by seizing opportunities presented by ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’. By 1972 Richard Nixon became the first American President to visit China. That’s six years before Deng Xiaoping started to actively integrate China with the West.

Today, the Chinese have lent over $1 trillion to the US government, and the Americans invest hundreds of billions of dollars annually in China. Economics trumped politics – a great lesson for us.

From South Korea and Singapore in the early 1960s to Ethiopia in the 2010s, same story. Many of these nations had grievances against the West (or Japan – in the case of South Korea), but they chose pragmatism over antagonism. Vietnam which was battered by the US army when they were fighting, laid the past aside to build the future. Contrast it with North Korea – that hermit state to the north of South Korea. It pays to be positive and friendly.

In the case of Ethiopia, considering its proximity to both the Middle East and Europe, it decided to integrate its economy with those regions by constructing a railway line to the Red Sea to reduce distance, then building industries that cater for those regions’ needs, and finally inviting them to invest in Ethiopia, which many did.

Economic growth requires making extremely pragmatic choices every step of the way. You must be known for being sound and predictable – emphasise institutions and the rule of law, not the rule of man. You have to send a resounding message that you are serious about growth – ranking in the 140s for ease of doing business doesn’t say that about you, does it? You have to abide by international norms – there is no prize for recluses.

The conclusion is – I feel that we could be more consistent in our messaging and practices to communicate a stronger desire for economic transformation. But, many a times political expediency trumps economics, and this does not signal a very positive future.