In the past several weeks, I have been listening more
keenly to Tanzania talk radio. It is fascinating. Aside
from the usual social chitchat, the latest hot topic for
morning talk radio is the ‘marginalisation and
isolation’ of Tanzania by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda
– the so-called coalition of the willing intend on
accelerating some aspects of East African
And the topic has been getting hotter by the day. The
Kiswahili is pretty – as usual – but the content can
sometimes feel like hot coals.
One caller was particularly caustic: “It is not the
coalition of the willing; it is the coalition of the killers.
Good riddance. ” Another caller argued that each of
the three presidents – Uhuru, Kagame, and Museveni
– had blood on their hands or had been accused of
“One is looting DR Congo; another is a serial election
rigger who thinks he can be the first president of
East Africa; while another is an accused murderer
who won elections through ethnic division.” Ouch! It
actually sounds worse when you hear it said in
Words like kabwela (hypocrites), fisi (hyena) and
nyoka (snake) are used liberally in reference to the
three countries. There are other routine insults more
painful to publish. On social media, commentators
from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda haul their share of
insults against Tanzania. It is ugly.
All of this is unfortunate and reveals a level of
immaturity that is disheartening. The public
brouhaha involving politicians and citizens on this
matter is a spectacle that cries out for leadership.
But what I found interesting in Tanzanian talk-radio
is a parallel sub-theme, and it is this: “We are larger
in size than all the other four countries added
together. We also have the most resources including
the largest population. They cannot do without us
but we can do without them.”
It is what you may call the ‘bigger is better’ creed. I
am sure it has fascinating psychological effects on
those who believe it. But, how much does land size
(and population) really matter? Does size always
translate into real multi-dimensional power and
It is an interesting question, and one whose answer,
on the face of it, is self-evident. Until you take a
closer look – as many economists have done.
Of course, it can be proved, empirically, that the cost
per population of certain public goods – for defence,
infrastructure, public health, national currency and
financial systems, to name a few – are lower in larger
countries because of the wider taxpayer base. It can
also be observed anecdotally that the larger a
country is in demographic and economic terms, the
less likely it will be invaded successfully by a foreign
And yet it is also true that the larger the size of a
country, the more likely (and easier) it is to foment
and sustain dissent, and the more difficult it is for
the centre to hold onto the periphery! Size, it turns
out, comes with costs that offset its benefits.
In fact many studies have shown that, in terms of
riches per capita, size does not really matter. If
anything, a cursory review of the top ten ‘richest’
countries in the world, shows that only four have
populations above one million.
And, of the top ten largest countries by population,
only the United States and Japan can be considered
rich. When you consider the high number of small
countries that are in the league of rich nations, you
might even say the dominant narrative is “small is
Consider just two examples: Israel and Singapore.
At only 20,770 square kilometres, Israel is small; it is
actually smaller than Rwanda, East Africa’s tiniest
country, whose land size is only 26,338 square
kilometres. By land size, Israel is 45 times smaller
than Tanzania. In population, it is about seven times
smaller. And yet, in terms of the size of the economy,
it is about 10 times bigger or 56 times in per capita
Singapore’s case is even more dramatic. It has 5
million people squeezed into 714 square kilometres,
yet, compared to Tanzania, its total economic output
divided by its population is 85 times greater!
Any politician in Tanzania listening to the vitriol on
talk radio might be tempted to conclude that the
public is reluctant, or worse, not interested, in
This would be unfortunate. The fact is Tanzania’s
exports to the EAC have increased tremendously
since the coming into force of the EAC Common
Market protocol: according to Tanzania’s own
Ministry of East African Cooperation, exports to the
EAC rose by 71 per cent between 2009 and 2010.
Imports declined by eight per cent in the same
Politicians should lead from the front and tell their
citizens the huge potential of an integrated East
The writer – an award winning author – writes every
other week out of Arusha, Tanzania.
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