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The untold story of Mtwara gas riots

30th June 2013
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On 22 May, 2013 protests and street battles erupted in the southern Tanzanian region of Mtwara in response to the government’s handling of mineral resource wealth and the contracts it has signed with various international actors.

The army and police were sent to quell the unrest, using teargas and live rounds, in the main southern town of Mtwara and in Mikindani, a smaller town around ten kilometres away in which at least three people died.

Government and state-friendly media sources have typically portrayed the events as thoughtless violence and wanton criminality. However, this detracts from a widespread and more urgent malaise about how the government has handled the discovery of natural resources.

The ‘hidden agenda’ against the south

Until recently, the Mtwara region, on the border with Mozambique and looking across the Indian Ocean, did not receive much attention from the media, multinational corporations or the government. The region had been best known for its Makonde wood carvings, its cashew nuts, and little else, and was often perceived as somewhat traditional or backward.

It is common for Tanzanians from other parts of the country to refer to those from the south – which conventionally means the Ruvuma, Lindi, and Mtwara regions – as washamba, which can be literally translated as ‘farmers’ but is often used as a pejorative term more accurately translated as ‘hicks’ or ‘peasants’.

These regions are not particularly well connected to the rest of the country, especially owing to the fact that the main trunk road south from Dar es Salaam remains tantalizingly unfinished – in spite of a promise made at independence in 1961 that the road would be completed quickly.

Many view this physical detachment as symbol of southern dislocation from the broader history of Tanzania, and some contend it is the result of deliberate ostracism by central government.

Some have argued that this marginalisation has an historical precedent, a ‘hidden agenda’ against the south that apparently followed the Maji Maji rebellion against German colonial rule (1905-7).

The south has also been a testing ground for various government policies, perhaps most infamously the disastrous Groundnut Scheme under British colonial rule during the late-1940s and early-1950s, but also the violent means used to forcibly resettle millions as part of socialist villagisation during the 1970s. Interestingly, some of these means – especially the burning of properties and crops – have effectively been replicated to deal with the recent unrest.

The rise of the south?

Since 2005, however, and especially in the last couple of years, far more interest has been paid to the region in light of massive offshore natural gas discoveries. Now more than ever, southern Tanzania (and particularly Mtwara town) is in the process of being dragged into the global capitalist economy – notwithstanding the infamous Groundnut Scheme.

During long periods of living and working within the region between 2006 and 2010 – initially with an NGO, then later when conducting and completing PhD fieldwork – Mtwara did not seem to be a part of the world wrought with tension nor did it display obvious signs of potential unrest. Apart from a few isolated protests at cashew nut subsidies and a lack of government support for farmers (not least regarding the provision of fertilisers), the Mtwara region was largely peaceful as well as extremely poor.

During the eight weeks I spent in various places up and down the coast of the Mtwara and Lindi regions last summer, it became clear that half a century of continuous rule by the CCM party (‘The Party of the Revolution’) has generated a palpable sense of frustration.

This must have been coupled with widely held perceptions that natural gas revenues would either be squandered, benefit other countries or regions of Tanzania, or both. While it may be the case that critical views had been articulated in the past, there seemed to be a clear shift in many of the perspectives offered – resentment towards the authority of the government crystallised around perceptions of what might happen to the newfound natural gas wealth.

Political pluralism and opposing government

But this hostility should not be looked at in isolation from broader political processes. It needs to be understood in the context of the arrival of seemingly viable political alternatives to the CCM in the form of two opposing political parties: CHADEMA (‘The Party of Democracy and Development’) and the CUF (Civic United Front).

The former tends to garner support from the increasingly vocal and politically significant younger generation across the country, selling the ideology of ‘People Power’, while the latter garners a fair degree of support in coastal areas, including the islands of Zanzibar.

A younger generation of educated, tech-savvy Tanzanians is emerging and their knowledge and understanding of the Arab Spring has engendered a great deal of hope for political change across the country (similar views were voiced in Arusha and Moshi in the north, as well as in the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam), whether peaceful or through force.

The burgeoning youth population has been emboldened to speak more freely given the emergence of such opposition political forces. Anecdotally, there also seems to be increased political engagement, as reflected by the numbers of people who watch and listen to parliamentary discussions across urban Tanzania.

At an All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) meeting on Tanzania (co-chaired by the APPG on extractive industries) held at the Houses of Parliament in London on 13 March, a lot of back slapping went on between the Head of Political Risk at BG Group (a British natural gas company), a retired advisor from the UK Department for International Development who works on extractive industries, and the Tanzanian High Commissioner in London, who at least presented some nuance in his understanding of the delicacy of the situation in Mtwara and the necessity to manage expectations.

The only vaguely dissenting voice came from a researcher for the NGO Tearfund, who highlighted that it is necessary to engender genuine engagement with local populations when organising natural resource extraction.

However, when asked about the nature of the supposedly ‘broad-based’ consultation, few detailed responses were forthcoming from the panel, possibly reflecting the fact that key powerbrokers in the process of natural resource extraction were ignorant of the increasing sense of frustration at a lack of popular engagement. This has been latched onto by opposition political parties in Tanzania.

These opposition parties are gaining traction in calling for greater transparency over the contracts that the government has signed with natural resource extraction companies.

There are further demands for the publication of all of the contracts signed with foreign governments, especially regarding the construction of the pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam that is to be funded with a discounted loan from the Chinese government.

In spite of the fact that the conditions for unrest have been palpable in Mtwara for some time and that smaller skirmishes have taken place over the past year, the government has perhaps done more to fan the flames than to extinguish them in the past six months or so.

As recently as 21 May, a visibly angered President Jakaya Kikwete pronounced on national television that Tanzania’s natural resources are there for the benefit of all Tanzanians. This is a message that he repeated on 23 May following major unrest in Mtwara and Mikindani, and has become a narrative repeated ad infinitum since.

Unrest in Mtwara

In most of the media sources that reported the developing situation in Mtwara (few and far between), there has been a regular suggestion that the unrest was caused by the content of the Energy and Minerals budget delivered by Minister of Energy and Minerals, Sospeter Muhongo.

The budget confirmed the construction of a pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam/Bagamoyo – funded again by a low-cost loan secured from the Chinese government – thus creating industrial jobs in processing the gas outside the Mtwara region.

In the same parliamentary session, Muhogo also announced that around 0.3% of the revenues from natural gas sales would remain in Mtwara, alongside enhanced social service provision and the largely empty promises of Corporate Social Responsibility.

This announcement is seen to have sparked the violent unrest in spite of the fact that public television networks mysteriously went off air in the Mtwara region that afternoon, and remained unavailable for the duration of the budget announcement.

Nevertheless, pay-per-view channels allowed some in Mtwara town to view the proceedings, leading to outrage and violence, with government offices and some of the houses of their staff burnt to the ground.

The protestors then set up road blocks and fought running battles with the army and police on the streets of Mtwara and Mikindani.

There have also been reports that a journalist was attacked and his house burnt down because he failed to accurately report the level of discontent in the region. In response to the violence, riot police and soldiers used tear gas in an attempt to disperse crowds.

But while the budget announcement might have effectively ‘lit the blue torch paper’, it has been clear that something of this nature has been on the cards for some time, and is an indication of the failure to manage expectations surrounding the natural resource discoveries coupled with an existing perception of a ‘hidden agenda’ against Mtwara.

Whether such an agenda exists is secondary to the perception it does, and this should have been considered in all dealings. The most sceptical analysis might point to the failure to learn key lessons from the Niger Delta in spite of a rhetorical claim to have done so.

Some media sources (perhaps those most closely aligned to the government) claim that there is some mkono was nje (‘outside hand’) aiming to create tension and that it stems from Western governments in light of Chinese involvement.

However, this seems to belie the fact that the companies working on gas extraction in Mtwara are predominantly from Europe and North America such as BG Group (UK), Statoil (Norway), ExxonMobil (US), Ophir (UK).

Brazilian company Petrobras – an increasingly significant global actor – is also involved, while the only major and publicised Chinese involvement is the aforementioned low cost loan for the construction of the controversial pipeline.

Spreading such thinly-veiled rumours is perhaps a diversionary tactic to absolve the Tanzanian government of the burden of responsibility, which would make sense in light of how excessive the response of the police and the army seems to have been.

While there has been relative silence over the outcome of the unrest, reliable sources in Mikindani have referred to at least three deaths in the town, all at the hand of violence perpetrated by the police, whilst official pronouncements maintain that there has only been one death – that of a woman who was seven months pregnant in Mtwara.

It is likely that the number of deaths and injuries is far higher than has currently been suggested while many remain in police custody, being fed by family members outside jail so that they do not become severely malnourished. Furthermore, the army and police seem to have arbitrarily destroyed several houses, businesses, and therefore livelihoods, as part of a supposed search for protestors.

Placing unrest in the historical context

Both the unrest itself and the responses to it are perhaps indicative of a broader political shift across Tanzania, which some on Twitter are referring to as a change from subjects to citizens.

However, this situation must also be framed within the specific historical experiences of southern Tanzania. From the colonial groundnut scheme of the 1940s and 1950s, via the government mandated resettlement scheme (villagisation) during the 1970s, it has often been the case that southern Tanzanians have only experienced political engagement as subjects of policies and projects imposed and rarely discussed.

It seems clear that the government has responded with a clear show of strength to guarantee future security for gas and oil extraction companies working in the region and to attempt to curtail potential protests. Unfortunately, it is likely that this unrest will lead to a far greater militarisation of gas extraction, exacerbating and clarifying the already vast inequalities surrounding natural resource extraction.

Calm was largely restored within a couple of days but it can perhaps be argued that the conditions for unrest were already in place before the latest incarnation of change imposed by central government on an apparently placid population.

The region has witnessed levels of violence previously unseen in Mtwara, perhaps outside some of the most nefarious policies employed during villagisation.

In overlooking the specific historical experiences of the Mtwara region, coupled with the contemporary political context and the lack of genuine engagement with people through broad-based consultation, the risk of such outcomes in the future remain.

While fears of a ‘new Niger Delta’ amongst Mtwarans, gas company employees at various levels, and many other interested parties in the region might be scaremongering, it is now a much clearer possibility and one that must be avoided at all costs.

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY