The discovery of a rich natural resource is usually good cause for joyous celebrations. But that is not so for the people of Mtwara and Lindi, in Tanzania. Richard Mgamba reports.
Fifty years after Tanzania’s independence, Mtwara and Lindi in the south of the country still remain quite under-developed; leaving its normally laid-back locals to groan that they are marginalised in the country’s development process. Indeed the so-called “laid-back” residents took many by surprise when they rioted in January over an impending US$1.2bn, 524km gas pipeline from Mtwara (where the country’s former president, Benjamin Mkapa, hails) – to the capital Dar es Salaam. The project is to be funded by the Chinese. Seven people died in the riots.
Last year, Tanzania announced a major discovery of 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the southern and coastal regions, making it a significant future gas producer in Africa. This has attracted major foreign players, including Europeans, and of course the Chinese. About 20% of the discovered gas is in the Mtwara region.
Prof Sospeter Muhongo, the minister for minerals and energy, was quick to condemn the rioters as “naïve and unpatriotic Tanzanians”, and defended the gas project. In an official statement, he outlined how the gas pipeline would save Tanzania around about $1bn a year, which the country currently spends on importing furnace oil that is used in generating electricity. He dismissed assertions from critics, including the people of Mtwara and Lindi, that the pipeline would turn into yet “another white elephant”. Prof Muhongo argued that the economic gains to be derived from the project would outstrip any envisaged losses.
A week after the minister’s statement, President Jakaya Kikwete dismissed the rioters’ assertions as “baseless and useless”. Amid speculation that some opposition politicians in the area instigated the riots, the president added that his government would not condone politicians who incited people to resist policies on natural resources.
This brought former President Mkapa into the fray. He said instead of condemning the rioters, the government should rather have a dialogue with them and negotiate an amicable solution. His views were welcomed by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party.
While the politicians wrangled on the issue, the key question that needed an answer was: How will the discovery of huge gas reserves in their area help the people of Mtwara and Lindi economically and socially?
Many doubt that the billion-dollar construction will have any direct trickle-down effect on the people. They point to similar projects in the past in the mining town of Kahama and the Lake Victoria gold belt, where the communities there are yet to enjoy any benefit. And yet, the negative impact, including environmental degradation resulting from mining, affects the local communities.
It is with all this in mind that the people of Mtwara and Lindi demanded to know how the discovery of gas and the construction of the pipeline would benefit them and their environment.
Zitto Kabwe, an outspoken member of parliament, offered a lead in resolving the crisis: “Charity begins at home, he said. “The people who should benefit first from our massive natural resources are those who live in the areas where these resources are mined… It’s a shame to see the millions who live in the resource-rich regions depending on charity donations, through so-called corporate social responsibility done by investors.”