Mtwara is making headlines again; it’s not making headlines for good but for bad; the news about a looming strike over its recently discovered natural gas.
Over the weekend, a section of the media reported that the southern town of Mtwara was at a standstill after news broke out that the natives were planning another deadly strike to protest over what they describe as “unfair distribution of gas revenues”.
The planned strike was a wake-up call after deadly skirmishes that rocked the southern region on December 27, 2012. It isn’t quite clear who is behind the strike, though some circles within the government believe the opposition as well as foreign interests were involved. But there wasn’t any credible evidence from the government that foreign countries were behind the ongoing chaos in Mtwara Region.
The looming strike comes at a time when the Ministry of Energy and Minerals yesterday tabled the new gas policy for thorough debate by lawmakers in Dodoma. It also comes at a time when the same ministry plans to table its budget for 2013/14 in which some MPs have vowed to shoot down as a revenge for what they describe as the revenge against the arrogance of its top ministry officials.
Whether this is a coincidence or not will be determined one day. As the nation waits with baited breath over what will transpire in Mtwara as well as in Dodoma where the Ministry of Energy and Minerals is scheduled to table its budget, the question that beg urgent answers is whether Tanzania will escape from Africa’s resource conflict? Will the new gas policy answer the ‘doubting Thomases of Mtwara? Above all, will the new gas policy give Tanzania leverage to control its huge natural gas reserves for the country’s development?
Long before the frenzy of the natural gas boom in Tanzania’s southern region of Mtwara and Lindi, which has been marginalized in terms of development during the past five decades, no one imagined that the natives in these regions, once considered the dullest and non-violence would one day riot against the government.
But, what started in Mtwara region, home to Tanzania’s third president, Benjamin Mkapa, on December 27, last year before escalating to the whole month of January, 2013, causing the death of seven people plus devastation of property worth billions of shillings, is a wake-up call as the government eyes about $3.5 billion revenues a year from the gas industry.
Tanzania last year announced the discovery of 35 trillion cubic feeds of natural gas in the Southern and Coast Region, making it one of the future gas producers in Africa, a move that has attracted major foreign players from Europe and China. About 20 percent of the discovered gas is in Mtwara region, one of the most poorest regions in Tanzania.
When these bloody skirmishes first erupted, the government and the ruling party, was quick to blame the opposition parties for inciting the communities living around the gas-rich regions to riot against the proposed State-owned project to construct $1.2 billion 524km gas pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam city.
The Minister for Minerals and Energy, Professor Sospeter Muhongo, called those rioting naïve and non-patriots whose motive is to tear apart a country that has been united solidly for the past five decades.
In his seven-page statement, the minister defended the Chinese funded gas pipeline saying it would save the country about $1 billion annually, which is the current spending in importing heavy furnace oil to generate electricity in Tanzania.
To the Minister and all who support this project, there are more economical gains than losses, while to those opposing it, this is another white elephant project planned by some few bureaucrats within the government and finally financed by the new global economic power house, China, through a 33 year loan offered at 2 percent interest rates.
A week after the Minister’s statement, President Kikwete also joined the fray, insisting that the demands by the rioters were baseless and useless, insisting that his government would not condone politicians who incite people to resist government’s policies on natural resources.
Despite the defense by the government, the natives of the gas-rich region rioted further, forcing the State to deploy heavy security in the region in January. It seemed nearly five months since the strong defense from the government followed by a frequent visit by journalists in the region to report the gas saga, the Mtwara residents still don’t buy the State’s gospel.
Former President Mkapa also joined the debate, urging the government to sit with the rioters in order to find a solution. In his statement issued to the media, President Mkapa stunned many from the ruling elite, when he urged the government to negotiate with the rioting people instead of applying force.
Mkapa’s statement fuelled the debate on how the massive gas would benefit the people who reside in Southern region as the rioters now got many sympathisers across the country.
To put things into perspective, the gas debate has divided Tanzania into two major groups, threatening the once divided nation built by the founding President Julius Nyerere.
In January, this year, the ruling party, CCM, which has earlier sided with the government, also changed its stand, urging the top government to listen to the people from gas-rich regions.
Finally, President Kikwete who was in Addis Ababa attending the African Union summit dispatched Prime Minister Mizengo Kayanza Pinda to the violence-rocked region to calm the situation.
While this was happening, Tanzania changed its story, this time shifting the blame to western governments, accusing them of inciting people to riot against the Chinese-funded multibillion gas pipeline project.
By the end of January this year, the story changed from opposition parties inciting locals to western governments, showing that the government was trying to avoid the key questions raised by natives from the gas-rich regions by shifting blames to outsiders.
Are demands by Mtwara residents justifiable?
The key question raised by the natives from Southern regions was how the discovery of massive gas in their area would benefit them economically and socially. To build their case, these ordinary folks queried the wisdom behind the construction of $1.2 billion gas pipeline to Dar es Salaam, leaving them in the cold, despite the facts that the gas reserves is in their ancestral land.
This question has been raised in minerals-rich regions in Tanzania many times, but those who raised it paid a hefty price during the past decade. When small-scale miners in a mining town of Kahama, about 1200 km from Dar es Salaam city, resisted the entry of a Canadian mining giant, in 1996, it is alleged that over 50 small scale miners who refused to vacate the area were buried alive in an operation supervised by security forces.
In the Lake Victoria gold belt, locals who resisted the introduction of large scale mining by multinationals were silenced by teargas canisters and bullets, thanks to about $4 billion Foreign Direct Investments that went to the mining sector between 1998 and 2010.
Till today, the communities that surround the lucrative mining areas in Lake Victoria gold belt are still gunning for a chunk of the glittering stone and there’s no hope that their cry would be answered soon.
For instance according to reliable statistics from the Central Bank of Tanzania, between 1998 and 2011, Tanzania exported gold worth $11.3 billion, but in return, the government earned only $450 million or 4 percent as taxes and royalties.
The four-per-cent earnings went directly to central government coffers, and little of it was returned to the communities were these mines are located. Though minerals are national property regardless of where they are mined in Tanzania, the negative impacts like environmental degradation resulting from mining activities affected directly those communities living near the mining areas.
Though the Presidential Mining Review Committee formed in 2007recommended, , among other things, that at least 20 percent of the taxes and royalties collected from minerals exports should be returned to the communities in the mining areas to fund development, the 2010 Mining Act didn’t consider this recommendation.
Today, the millions of people in the mining areas are struggling with massive poverty because the government’s policies failed to address how the communities in these areas should also benefit from lucrative minerals.
Basing on this shaky background when it comes to natural resources, the people of Mtwara decided first of all to demand to know how the discovery of massive gas in their land would benefit them economically and socially.
In pushing this agenda, these people borrowed a leaf from the Ogoni and Niger Delta in Nigeria, where the locals fought for a fair share of oil for decades. The only difference is that the Tanzania’s gas resistance didn’t produce another Ken Saro Wiwa, though the cry was the same.
It seemed these people can’t think about their rights without foreign intervention or opposition parties’ support, according to the government reports.
Zitto Kabwe, an outspoken Member of Parliament from the opposition, who was once expelled in Parliament in 2007 for opposing the construction of $400 million gold mine by African Barrick Gold believe those rioting against the government have a solid case that can’t be dismissed through cheap propaganda.
“These people are against the government’s policy which doesn’t favour or remember to develop the gas-rich regions…It’s absurd to see those areas which have massive wealth struggling with abject poverty.” Kabwe who declared publicly that he was in support of the Southern region people says.
“Charity begins at home… the people who should benefit first from our massive natural resources are those surround the areas where these resources are mined…
It’s a shame to see millions living near the resource-rich regions with people forced to depend on charity donations called corporate social responsibility done by investors.” Kabwe adds.
Did Kikwete’s great episode fall into deaf ears?
In February this year, President Kikwete responded to the Mtwara chaos with facts and brevity but it seemed his great episode fell into deaf ears.
In the beginning of February, President Kikwete addressed the nation in his monthly address saying only 16 percent of the total gas discovered would be transported by the $1.2 billion gas peline to Dar es Salaam. In what aims at calming the situation, Kikwete says a portion of the remaining 84 percent would be used by industries to be built in the gas-rich regions, while the rest would be for export oriented market.
According to President Kikwete, the recent violence was a result of ill-informed politicians who takes the advantage of ignorance of the masses to incite people to riot against the government’s plans toward gas development.
“There’s no need to panic and wreak havoc…my government will make sure that the discovered gas benefit all people including those living in the gas-rich regions.” Kikwete says, adding that he would be the last person to introduce policies that hug investors at the expense of locals living in the gas-rich regions.
After President Kikwete’s speech, which among other things, seeks to respond to all questions raised by demonstrators from the gas-rich region, one question that begs an urgent answer is: Why did it take violence, teargas and blood for the government to communicate with its people about they would benefit from the massive gas reserves discovered last year?
It’s not the investors, it’s the people
To many critics, the problem with Tanzania is not investors or the people, but the government, which introduces policies that don’t add value to ordinary people.
A bout nine years ago, a foreign investor from South Africa said this to me in Johannesburg: “We are robbing Tanzania badly but don’t blame us…we were not part of the Parliament that passed the Mining Act of 1997, which gave us the power to rob your country’s minerals.”
The South African investor was right. All foreign investors who come to Tanzania follow the law enacted and passed by the National Parliament. They don’t grab natural resources through the barrel of the gun. There’s also another serious problem in Tanzania; that whoever goes against the government’s policy by criticizing or questioning the legality of these policies are branded non-patriotic or foreign stooge.
During the rush for Tanzania’s minerals in 1990s, those who questioned the Mining Act of 1997, which gave investors everything, we were quickly branded anti-investors, naïve and above all jealous people who hate foreign investors.
While in a countries like Zimbabwe, the government advocated for private-public partnership in mining sector, in Tanzania, a country that played a crucial role in Zimbabwe’s liberation, the investors were given 100 percent ownership and massive tax exemption of up to 15 years.
It took the Tanzanian government a decade to realize that things were falling apart in the mining sector. Then in November 2007, President Jakaya Kikwete formed a Presidential Mining Review Committee, which also included the opposition MP Zitto Kabwe who was expelled in the Parliament in the same year for questioning some mining contracts.
The Committee confirmed beyond doubtable doubt that the country has indeed been robbed. Three years later, in April 2010, Tanzania passed a new Mining Act, which replaced the 1997 law.
Today, the law allows the government to retain free carried shares of up to 50 percent in gemstone industry, while in Gold and Diamond, the State can retain up to 40 percent share in any mine without paying a single penny.
After the mining fiasco, today the same government is at it again -- following the discovery of natural gas. Instead of addressing the questions and challenges raised by its own people, the government has been blaming the opposition and western nations for allegedly fuelling the recent skirmishes.
It seems that in Tanzania, the people cannot think, let alone reason, unless they are told to do so by foreigners or politicians.
But the bottom line is that the recent violence was a wake-up call to the government; the days when all resources are exploited without people’s consent are long gone.
When all is said and done, the government still has a duty to communicate peacefully and effectively with the people; this is because the gas sector is still very new and therefore very few people understand it thoroughly.
Secondly, Tanzanians are still haunted by previous records in the mining sector, and they need assurances that the mistakes of the past decade won’t be repeated.
Richard Mgamba is the Managing Editor of The Guardian, Weekend Edition (Saturday and Sunday). He is the two times award winning journalists who won the CNN awards (2008) and European Union’s Lorenzo Natali Award on human rights and development overall winner for Africa in 2009. He has extensively investigated and reported major stories in mining sector during the past decade.