Two weeks after the earthquake of 23 June, Brexit’s shockwaves appeared to have rippled out as far as East Africa. Since 2004, the member states of the East African Community had been negotiating an Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU, framed by Brussels as a mutually beneficial, tariff-abolishing arrangement between two regional integration projects. After years of discussion, a deal had finally been thrashed out, its completion pending only signatures. Then, on 8 July 2016, came a bombshell from the Tanzanian government:
We have all witnessed what happened in the EU in the past few days. We think it is not the right time for us to sign the agreement. There are still contentious issues which need to be settled to ensure that Tanzania is not turned into a source of raw materials and markets for European goods.
Tanzania’s rejection of the EPA aggravated already fractious relations among the members of the EAC. Kenya and Rwanda pressed ahead and signed the agreement. Burundi shared Tanzania’s position, though on different grounds: ongoing political strife and state-sponsored violence meant that it was already collared by EU sanctions. Uganda attempted to mediate. The region’s press seized on both Brexit and the discord over the EPA to reflect on the prospects of faltering integration. In the East African, one commentator cautioned against ‘a headlong rush to political union without proper democratisation of regional institutions’, which would ‘unleash angry nationalism in member states’.
The EAC member states as of 2016.
But, as the second half of the Tanzanian statement suggests, Brexit was rhetorical cover rather than underlying reasoning for rejecting the EPA. Tanzania’s challenge to the EU rested on deeper concerns about the country’s development strategy and its place within a globalising world. Since coming to power in 2015, President John Magufuli has unsettled the neoliberal consensus that has prevailed in Tanzania for the past two decades. His proposed model of state-led industrialisation draws in spirit if not substance on the socialist era of the 1960s and 1970s, when Julius Nyerere embarked on a bold attempt to develop a ‘self-reliant’ Tanzanian state. Magufuli has argued that the EPA simply opens Tanzania’s economic borders to cheaper European manufactured goods.
Tanzanian critics of the EPA have argued that it represents merely another iteration of European neo-imperialism in Africa. Magufuli himself has described it as ‘another form of colonialism’. His Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, argued that ‘since independence, Africa has been taking insurance on motor vehicles and buildings, but has not taken any insurance that Africa is never colonised and never marginalised again.’ One former Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, compared the EPA to the ‘cartographic mischief’ which took place at the Berlin Conference of 1884.
Mkapa and Museveni share a common political trajectory. Despite being at the forefront of implementation of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s, they were both active in Dar es Salaam’s vibrant far Left scene of the early post-colonial years. Home to scholars like Walter Rodney, Giovanni Arrighi, and Issa Shivji, the University of Dar es Salaam was an incubator of dependency theory and critiques of neoimperialism. Their Marxist scholarship bears a strong imprint on today’s rhetoric: resistance to the EU’s perceived neocolonialism has a deeper intellectual past in East Africa.
The EPA was not universally condemned in Tanzania. Some perceived the government’s position as flying in the face of the economic reality of globalisation. ‘We fail to manage our economies properly and then we use out-dated ideologies as escape routes to justify isolationism in the name of neo-colonialism’, wrote a former secretary-general of the EAC. ‘When will this stop?’ The debate about the EPA was therefore a discussion about Tanzania’s place in a globalising world, grounded in long-standing intellectual traditions. In a regional context, it was also bound up in tensions surrounding the speed of integration, the discovery of hydrocarbons, and rivalries between the leaders of the member states (Magufuli has a strong relationship with Raila Odinga, the longstanding opponent of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta). In each case, national interests prevailed over the supranational. Tanzania’s rejection of the EPA was certainly no gut reaction to Brexit. But both dynamics are manifest consequences of globalisation and its discontents. Both represent a turn against regionalism and the resurgence of nationalism and parochialism.
Recent developments, in which American elections and European referendums are only part of the story, challenge scholars to reconsider contemporary trends in ‘global history’. The genre’s emphasis on connection, entanglement, and integration have held an allure for historians: the ‘transnational turn’, with its often counterhegemonic dynamics that run counter to the ordering power of the state. But the trend of foregrounding cosmopolitanisms – such as centuries-old Indian Ocean trade networks or the ‘Bandung Moment’ of Afro-Asian solidarity – carries the danger of masking the perpetuation of more parochial identity forms, which retain their own appeal in the face of neoliberal globalisation.
Amid these challenging, confusing times, do we overlook the disconnections that characterise the ‘present crisis’? And how are we to are write history that addresses a resurgence of parochialism without reproducing its own insularity?