Poor Tanzanians left out of resource rush

Frustration over a lack of benefits from gas extraction sparked riots in May – and a heavy-handed government response.

Iran oil tanker
Oil tankers are a frequent sight in Mikindani, an impoverished port in southern Tanzania [Thembi Mutch/IPS]

Mikindani, Tanzania – Fisherman Salim Riziki stands next to a set of turbines, newly imported from Dubai, talking about the major gas finds on nearby Songo Songo island – and whether it will someday benefit his community.

Whirring sounds and lights from the turbines are in stark contrast to the mud and thatch houses and the few corrugated iron shacks in this southern village of Mikindani in Kilwa district.

It is dusk. There are no cars on the road, and only the occasional labourer walks by carrying a hoe, as the villagers make their way home. The Songo Songo gas discovery resulted in electrification in this village – but only for the lucky, wealthy few.

“Yes, we think this exploration is vital, but as citizens we are concerned. We need the truth, to have the information laid out for us so we can explore slowly what might be best for us. The government has told us their plans for hospitals, for schools, for electricity. They’ve told us on the radio, yes, but they didn’t ask [if they could go ahead with the exploration],” Riziki says.

At the port of Mtwara, about 250km south of Kilwa district, the frustration of locals reached a breaking point on May 22 when government buildings were attacked. Angry stone-throwing villagers surrounded the offices of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which means “Party of the Revolution” in Swahili.

“Militarisation by government and private firms is not unusual when oil and natural gas exploration occurs. Neither is the increase in violence uncommon.

– Mika Minio-Paluello,  NGO Platform

The government’s response was extremely heavy-handed. Truckloads of soldiers from this East African nation’s capital, Dar es Salaam, descended upon the port town. Tear gas and live ammunition were used and local sources say three people were killed, including a woman who was seven months pregnant.

Long time coming

But those who know the region say the violence has been a long time coming.

“Militarisation by government and private firms is not unusual when oil and natural gas exploration occurs. Neither is the increase in violence uncommon. This is a repeat of Nigeria, Ghana, and Angola,” says Mika Minio-Paluello of international NGO Platform.

The riots were sparked after the government announced the construction of a gas pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam would continue according to plan. That means no facilities will be developed in Mtwara to process the gas.

It also means the 2006 exploitation of gas reserves in Mtwara’s Mnazi Bay, which borders Mozambique, has not led to the growth of manufacturing and processing industries in the region, which would have ultimately brought economic prosperity to this area.

Ishmail, a resident of Mikindani, a neighbouring port 10km south of Mtwara, wishes he could benefit from the gas discoveries.

“We are mostly sesame and cashew farmers, or at least most of us would be if we had work. Unemployment here in Mikindani is a massive problem. Only eight to 10 percent of us work, and we are desperate,” says Ishmail, who gave only one name citing fears for his safety.

“What does a person need? Health, a happy family, a home, food, and work. We don’t have that, or clean water. Our problem is that the government, over 650km away in Dar es Salaam, has abandoned us … The gas will be exported to other areas, and here we will still be left without the basics.”


International oil companies are drilling from Somalia, down along the East African coast to northern Mozambique. They include the BG group, Statoil – which is a 40 percent shareholder of Exxon – Royal Dutch Shell, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Petrobras, Total, BP and Aminex.

China’s President Xi Jinping walks with Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete [Reuters]

But the theme of lack of information about the oil and gas explorations and drilling comes up repeatedly in interviews along Tanzania’s southern coast.

“The central government treats us with contempt. We are the forgotten children,” Sultan, a tailor in Mtwara, says. He and the rest of the residents of Mtwara have not benefited from the oil and gas. And neither have the people from Kilwa and Lindi – about 100 km north of Mtwara – which also lie on Tanzania’s southern coastline.

Sultan’s own home has no electricity, and he “borrows” from the line running outside his shack in the central market so that he has enough light to see his treadle, or hand-cranked sewing machine.

Despite being marginalised from the benefits of the gas discoveries, local communities are too afraid to speak out publicly.

Rob Ahearne is a lecturer at East London University in the United Kingdom and author of the study “Oil and gas, citizenship, modernity and change in southern Tanzania”.

“The communities themselves are wary of talking, they are scared of spies or informers from CCM, and are wary of being identified as troublemakers,” Ahearne says.

“These are very marginalised areas, they feel it’s a private affair, and there are very few cohesive community forums. Even from village to village there’s very little trust,” he says.

‘Coal in the hole’

According to several consultants involved in environmental management, the foreign oil and gas companies are actually exceeding what is required of them – both in community consultations, and environmentally. But this is partly because European environmental management audits are much stricter than those followed by Tanzania.

In addition, every oil company working in Tanzania has to donate $100,000 a year as a basic registration cost to the central government, according to Ahearne’s study.

Additionally, the Tanzanian government has asked for 60 percent of all revenues.

However, there is no information in the public sphere about where the money will be deposited, whom the tax will benefit, and the quotas for local employment.

And, with Tanzania’s extremely weak implementation of its Freedom of Information Act, accessing this material is impossible.

However, despite three months of trying to contact Tanzanian Minister of Energy and Minerals Professor Sospeter Muhongo, he would not discuss the issue. All efforts to get Tanzanian ministers to comment on governance issues or community consultation exercises also met with dead ends.

“You can discuss ethics and philosophy when you have a full belly. Our people do not have that.

– government official

“You can discuss ethics and philosophy when you have a full belly. Our people do not have that,” says one government employee, who asked to remain anonymous.

However, Nnimmo Bassey from NGO Oilwatch Africa says transparency is not the problem but resource extraction itself.

“The ultimate solution is not transparency in the petroleum sector – you simply will not get it. The sector will not agree to pay environmental costs that they externalise. The ultimate solution is to leave the oil in the soil. And the coal in the hole, as we say.”

A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency. 

Source: IPS