Tanzanian FM: Netanyahu understands Africa's post-ideological reality

Mahiga, the highest-ranking Tanzanian official ever to visit Israel, arrived in the country on Tuesday to take part in the official opening of the East African country’s embassy in Ramat Gan.

Tanzania's Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga (photo credit: HERB KEINON)
Tanzania's Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga
(photo credit: HERB KEINON)
The dramatic improvement in Israel’s relations with Africa over the last decade is due largely to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s astute reading of the post-ideological Africa that has emerged since the Cold War, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Augustine Philip Mahiga told The Jerusalem Post.
Mahiga, the highest-ranking Tanzanian official ever to visit Israel, arrived in the country on Tuesday to take part in the official opening of the East African country’s embassy in Ramat Gan. He will be here until Friday.
Referring to Israel’s long-standing desire to gain observer status in the African Union, a status already enjoyed by the Palestinian Authority, Mahiga said in an interview that while it might be important symbolically and give Israel the opportunity to address the body each year, “I think what Israel has accomplished in the past 10 years in renewing relations with African states is even more significant than to give a half-hour statement at the African Union summit.”
Though symbolically such a speech might be important, he said that “in terms of enduring relationships,” Netanyahu has done extremely well, “maybe even to the surprise of some Israelis.”
With the opening of the Tanzanian mission, there are now 15 African countries with permanent embassies in Israel, as opposed to only 10 Israeli embassies in all of Africa. Four new African embassies have opened in Israel in the last three years.
Mahiga said Netanyahu, whom he will meet on Thursday, “is a man who has correctly interpreted the times, the changes, the political dynamics – especially after the end of the Cold War – that are transpiring in Africa.” The Israeli prime minister, he said, recognized that the continent is in a post-ideological age, and that Israel has much to offer countries more concerned about solving domestic problems than superpower politics.
“We were all locked into Cold War politics, or in the old way of thinking, and that was a straitjacket that we inhabited from the colonial times,” he said, sitting in the offices of the new embassy located on the 12th floor of a Ramat Gan office building. Israel, he said, has been particularly adept at identifying what it has that will make a difference to the citizens of specific countries in Africa.
“Not everything has to come from Israel,” Mahiga said, referring to assistance across a wide array of areas. “It is possible to leverage your friendship with Israel to get something on better terms from the US. I know this.”
Another element that has led to vastly improved ties between Africa and Israel, he said, is the “significant changes in the Arab world toward Israel.” He agreed with the statement that if Saudi Arabia now engages with Israel on various issues, then it cannot turn around and tell African states not to do the same.
MAHIGA WAS one of seven African leaders who met with Netanyahu in Entebbe, Uganda, in the summer of 2016, when Netanyahu was the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Africa in some three decades. Just months before, Tanzania voted in a new president, John Magufuli, a devout Christian who significantly changed the tone of his country’s relationship with Israel.
That more positive tone became clear a few months later during a vote in October at a meeting on Jerusalem at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. Tanzania, along with Croatia, forced a secret ballot on a motion that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, denying the Palestinians a majority for the resolution.
Mahiga acknowledged that Tanzania came under a great deal of diplomatic pressure from “some of the Mideast countries” after that vote. Since Tanzania was the seat of the African liberation movement from 1964 until the end of colonial rule on the continent, he said, there was an expectation among many that it show “some kind of leadership in the tradition of the liberation movements,”
Tanzania’s voting pattern on Israel is expected to come up during Mahiga’s meeting with Netanyahu. It voted against Israel in last December’s UN General Assembly resolution slamming the US for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Asked about the matter, Mahiga, who formerly served as Tanzania’s ambassador to the UN, said this “is an opportunity to have a dialogue,” but changing voting patterns is a gradual process.
Referring to the host of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN that are passed automatically every year, he said some were adopted over three decades ago, and countries just vote for them as a matter of routine and habit.
“At this point in time we need to look and examine the relevance of some of those resolutions,” he said. “It is important that we not automatically continue that kind of voting habit. At the same time, we cannot just get up and say, ‘I am leaving this resolution.’”
The changing of habits in international politics, as well as the “changing of minds and attitudes, is a gradual process,” Mahiga said.
However, “the process has begun,” he said. “When you opt out of a certain pattern of voting, you become the subject of the discussion yourself, and you want to make that transition in a way that others will understand – so as not to be seen as a sellout, or that you do not understand the issues.”
At the same time, Mahiga said, one of the principles of his country’s foreign policy is pragmatism.
“By being pragmatic there are obvious benefits that we can derive from extending the relationship between us in a different sectors of development,” he said. “We are looking at the whole notion of nonalignment in a different perspective. Whereas during the Cold War this meant not aligning with the East or West military, economically or politically, now we are saying that nonalignment is not being automatically the enemy of another country because that country in an enemy of a third. Nonalignment in this sense is trying to put your national interests first – that is pragmatism.”
Asked if Tanzania considered opening its embassy in Jerusalem and not Ramat Gan, Mahiga said the idea was “hinted at, occasionally.”
Opening an embassy, he said, “is a sovereign decision. But at the same time there are certain international opinions, resolutions and concerns with which we don’t want to be out of step.”