Tanzania and China’s Upgraded Relations Aren’t as Solid as They Seem

Tanzania and China’s Upgraded Relations Aren’t as Solid as They Seem
President of Tanzania Samia Suluhu Hassan attends the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Hannah McKay/Pool via AP)

On Nov. 3, 2022, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan and her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announced the formation of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” between the two countries. The declaration, signed in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, affirmed Tanzania’s status as one of China’s closest partners in Africa.

The red-carpet treatment Suluhu received in Beijing last year came on the heels of the renewed commitment her government expressed toward Chinese investment in megaprojects in Tanzania, including the $1.3 billion Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station and a $10 billion port complex in Bagamoyo. But the display of diplomatic pomp at the announcement of last year’s agreement obscured the complex and often fractious partnership between the two countries. In practice, China’s footprint in Tanzania has historically depended on ties that Beijing cultivated with Tanzanian elites, a dynamic that leaves the “special relationship” between the two countries vulnerable to sudden changes in the broader geopolitics of the East African region .

A joint communique released alongside the declaration signed last November referred to a long history of “friendly cooperation” in the 58 years since Tanzania’s formation out of the union of Tanganyika and the coastal archipelago of Zanzibar. But relations between China and what became Tanzania date back even further. Beginning in the late 1950s, when Tanganyika and Zanzibar were still under British colonial rule, Beijing began to foster relations with local anti-colonial activists. Among China’s closest allies in the region were Zanzibari socialists like Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu and Ali Sultan Issa, who took advantage of their regular visits to Beijing to secure academic scholarships and military training for other East African radicals. In addition, other Zanzibari anti-colonial activists like Miraji Mpatani Ali were instrumental in establishing a Kiswahili-language broadcast of Radio Peking—now known as China Radio International—which produced propaganda in support of East African independence for a global audience.

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