East Africa should be borderless

September 18, 2013 6:18 pm0 comments by:

In my travels around Tanzania, I was privileged to visit bordering villages in border regions of Tanzania. These include Mbeya, Kigoma, Kagera, and Mara. What I have experienced in these villages is overwhelming especially to somebody with more than 10 years of studies in International Relations. My constant feel was that African countries should be borderless.  In this brief insight, I will explain my experience for each region and then argue my case.

Matema Beach

Matema Beach

Mbeya- I went to evaluate a Lutheran church hospital located in a village called Matema. The hospital is known as Matema Beach Hospital. As testified by its name, the hospital is located on the beach of Lake Nyasa.  The beach is clean and very beautiful. Waters of lake Nyasa are crystal clear and fresh. After work, I spent lots of hours swimming, resting on the beach and talking to people. Some of these people were patients and their relatives, others were doing small business, and some were washing their clothes. At that time tensions between Tanzania and Malawi on the ownership of the lake were on high.

I was personally interested to listen to the position of people in the area about the issue. So I talked to them on that matter. I realized that most of them had close relations to people on the other side- Malawi. They had inter-married, they have obtained some of their education on the other side, they have relatives there, and they sell and buy products from each other. They understand each other’s language. The culture is the same. These people are one. There is no border between them.



Kigoma- I visited Kigoma to evaluate a Good Samaritan HIV/AIDS program implemented by the Bible Society of Tanzania. This program focuses on behavior change and stigmatization. We went round many villages and at one point we found ourselves in Burundi. There was no border gate. We realized that we are in Burundi after seeing a signboard with French and Kirundi writings. Well, during focus group discussions, the so-called ‘Good Samaritans’- i.e. the program volunteers/implementers, testified that the message of the Good Samaritan has reached Burundi because they interact with Burundians on daily basis and also in the markets. I then after inquired more and these people explained to me that the interactions are there. Again the border is useless in this context.

Kagera- In Kagera I visited Ngara district for the same assignment as above (in Kigoma). Here is where I was more shocked. I went to one tiny village whereby it is only a dust road that separates Burundi and Tanzania. I cannot remember the exact name of the village, but from my twitter timeline(TL) I am sure it is either of these three villages Gwamanyagu, Mwivuzwa, or Mwibambo.  I was very excited to see good relations and interactions between Burundians and Tanzanians. I then asked, how do you determine somebody is Burundian or Tanzanian? Who decides? These questions were based on my observation that there was no border. The women answered that it’s the local authority leaders who decide whether a person is Tanzanian or Burundian. Most of this is done on the basis of school registration. So if you register your kid in a school on the other side he/she becomes a Burundian. I have looked at my twitter TL on those dates in trying to detect my mood…and it was very positive. For example, on the 20th May, I tweeted ‘so delighted…this ujirani mwema (i.e. good neighborliness) is more than EU…so free’.

Rorya District

Rorya District

Mara- I visited Shirati in Rorya district.  The dominant tribe in Rorya is Luo. Luo people are in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. During focus group discussions that I had with people, one participant commented that ‘…we are often called Kenyans anyways’. This phrase caught my mind. I later on inquired more about that. I learnt that people in Rorya interact with other Luo in Kenya.  Families live both in Kenya and Tanzania. They go to clinics on the side of Kenya. They speak about Obama in the streets because he is a fellow Luo. They know more about ODM and Raila as much as they know about CCM and Kikwete. Again, the border does not make sense to these people.

So the above experience reminded me of the brutality of the 1884/85 Berlin Conference that scrambled Africa into pieces based on their own interests regardless of people’s affiliations. Families were separated.

Unfortunately, African leaders, partly due to political convenience, adopted the demarcations as they were. I am not blaming them because at the dawn of independence that was probably the easiest way to go about things. However, visionary leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkurumah saw the problem. Nyerere suggestions during independence struggle were more realistic. His speeches on the East Africa testified to this realism. He, for example, said ‘ the unity and freedom movements should be combined, and the East African territories achieve independence as one unit at the earliest possible moment…once the four nations (Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar) each have their own representative at the United Nations, have their own national flag and foreign representative we shall have established centres of vested interests against unity’ (Nyerere, 1960).

Indeed after independence, it became very difficult for African countries to unite.  Nevertheless, the concept of unity is not utopia. The people who founded the nation-state system through the famous Treaty of Westphalia 1648 are abandoning the system to try and join efforts. The EU countries are putting their differences away and constantly finding a common ground to become one. African countries have a lot more in common than European countries. We can do it.

In relations to this, I have been saddened by recent actions of my government in Tanzania. The government carried out an operation to return all illegal immigrants to their original countries. The policy is a right one but the way it was done was not right. This is because many bonafide Tanzanians were wrongly accused as illegal immigrants and underwent human rights abuse. I think been accused as an illegal immigrant in your own country, is like a father denying a son/daughter. I wonder if there is anything more painful. Worse enough, people with power at local levels have used the ‘operations’ to ‘punish’ people they do not like. John Mnyika, an active Member of Parliament (MP), tweeted that, ‘kiongozi mmoja wa chama cha siasa Kigoma alisakaziwa na mtendaji kuwa sio raia kwa kuwa muda mrefu walikuwa wakitofautiana’, meaning ‘one leader of a political party was accused that he is not Tanzanian by a local authority leader whom they have had different ideas’.

There are such many examples. On his twitter timeline Zitto Kabwe, a Kigoma-North MP, uploaded you tube videos that testify the inhuman nature of these operations on his twitter TL.  The government needs to revisit this operation and do it in a humane way. The issue of human rights is critical in this operation.

Important to mention is that, the decision of Tanzania’s government to deal with illegal immigrants is not wrong. This is because every state has a right to protect its borders and ensure legality and control in immigration.

This is also a security issue. In fact, I think the government’s decision to do so was fueled by the recent tensions with its neighbors-in particular Rwanda and given the known numbers of rebel group originating from Rwanda which are known for destabilizing the great lakes region. Thus it displayed a sense of ‘insecurity’ or rather ‘caution’. On the other side, it could have been a statement that Tanzania was trying to make to its neighbors.

All in all, the state has a right to do so. In fact, the government of Tanzania has been accommodative to immigrants and refugees for over years. Tanzania, the island of peace, has been a refuge for many people who ran away from wars, hunger and hardships in their countries. Tanzania granted asylum and naturalized thousands of refugees. There are many immigrants who have been naturalized to become Tanzanians. There are also many immigrants who have been in Tanzania for more than two generations but have not been willing to become Tanzanians. The question remains why? These people who are not ready to be naturalized but they stay in Tanzania are not to be trusted.

I am a keener believer of global citizenship and I think everyone should be allowed to live where they want to as long as they keep right paper. Wanting to live in another country without right papers is like living in somebody’s house without his/her will. Therefore, people been raised in Tanzania and claim to be Tanzanian should fight hard to be naturalized or If they don’t want a Tanzanian citizenship but they  want to live in Tanzania then they should  get right papers and a permit to do so.

Having said that, I am not blind to the fact that Tanzania does not have a good system of national IDs to determine who Tanzanian citizen. The government has to ensure that every child is given a birth certificate. For the older generation, a system of registration and national ID has to start asap especially in border areas. For those immigrants who have stayed in Tanzania for generations should be given an opportunity to decide-whether to be naturalized or to go back to their countries. Some of them do not know anything or anyone in the ‘country of origin’ thus deporting them is very harsh.

Leaving real-politik behind, Africa needs to rethink about the border issue. 50 years of independence is not long enough to revisit some of decisions made during independence eves. If the embedded, entrenched, and institutionalized European states could think of a union, why is it so hard for Africans? There are many answers to that…but, I guess, all of them would be summarized under ‘selfishness’.

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