It’s all about trade and pace of reforms

Monday August 10 2015

President Uhuru Kenyatta meets Uganda President

President Uhuru Kenyatta meets Uganda President Yoweri Museveni at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, on August 9, 2015. PHOTO | PSCU 

By DANIEL K. KALINAKI
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President Uhuru Kenyatta’s address to Ugandan Parliament yesterday morning was the first by a visiting foreign leader since South Africa’s Jacob Zuma in 2010.

In fact, with the exception of President Thabo Mbeki in 2005 and Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, no other head-of-state has been given the honour in the last decade, according to officials from the Parliament of Uganda press office. 

Nelson Mandela cancelled a scheduled visit in 1999 due to domestic disturbances and although President Mwai Kibaki addressed the House, he did so as the chairman of the East African Community.

 President Uhuru’s state visit and the rare honour reflect a meeting of interests and growing chemistry between him and the Ugandan leader.

The interests revolve around trade and access to markets. With Tanzania pursuing a new mega port at Bagamoyo, the Kenyatta administration has aggressively promoted infrastructure projects and cut back on the bureaucratic red-tape to maintain its position as the preferred trade route to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern DR Congo.

After trying – and failing – to extend the Nairobi – Malaba oil pipeline to Kampala for a decade, the two countries have, in less than three years, agreed to jointly build a new Standard Gauge Railway, a refinery in western Uganda, and a crude oil export pipeline to the Indian Ocean.

That is on top of issuing a single tourist visa, setting up a Single Customs Territory and scrapping work permit fees.

The quick pace of reforms under Kenyatta caught the attention of President Museveni (and President Paul Kagame in Rwanda) who saw in the business-savvy Kenyan President a willing reformer.

The relationship between the two leaders deepened when Uganda threw its weight against the International Criminal Court and its charges against President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto.

The relationship has continued to grow as Kenya has become more involved in regional geo-politics, from terrorism and the war in Somalia, to the conflict in South Sudan and the instability in Burundi.

Frequent visits by the two presidents across borders have allowed Mr Museveni and Mr Kenyatta to grow comfortable in each other’s company, members of the two families to meet, and Brookside, a dairy company associated with the Kenyan leader to invest in Uganda, where his host is a large rancher.  

Officials close to both leaders say Mr Kenyatta seeks to use Mr Museveni’s 30-year experience to navigate the geo-politics of the region while the Ugandan leader sees his Kenyan counterpart as a reformer who can accelerate the East African Community project that he wants to be a key part of his legacy.