Zachariah Mampilly

Road to Mozambique ©Zachariah Mampilly“Gasi haitoki! Gasi haitoki!” (Gas should not come!) Ten adolescent girls dressed in navy blue school uniforms chant in excitable tones as my rented Toyota FunCargo cruises past on a dust road heading towards the Mozambican border. I am in southern Tanzania near a village called Msimbati. Just beyond, one of several massive gas projects arises built by a who’s who of international oil and gas corporations. The gas is destined for the country’s booming economic capital, Dar es Salaam, some 500 kilometers north. A pipeline to transport the gas is to be built by a Chinese firm with a loan from the Chinese government. 

The announcement of a pipeline triggered a massive protest movement that brought fifteen thousand people to the streets of the regional capital, Mtwara (the name is shared by the region and the town). Following a number of popular outbursts earlier this year, the government sent in the army to crack down on the protesters. Villages and towns across the region were occupied; stores and businesses were burnt; residents tortured and killed; and accusations of sexual assault by police were rife. 

I arrive in the region from Dar es Salaam (where I live) barely a week after the government crackdown and less than two weeks before the arrival of America’s most prominent citizen of East African origin, Barack Obama. Dar is in the midst of a beautification campaign. Roads near the U.S. Embassy are being paved, walls whitewashed, and greenery freshened, all to demonstrate Tanzania’s arrival on the world stage. Even the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in March did not warrant the same excitement, despite Chinese trade with the country remaining more than ten times as large as that of the United States. 

Anti-pipeline graffiti

Mnanzi Bay gas project sign

Southern Tanzania is seldom visited by tourists. Removed from the natural splendor of the Serengeti and Kilimanjaro in the country’s north and the historical beauty of coastal towns like Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo or Stone Town, the region has always been more isolated and less developed, if no less beautiful, than much of the country. But while the landscape is stunning, there is little to suggest that it has benefitted from the country’s extraordinary economic growth over the past decade. Now, with the discovery of vast amounts of gas in an energy poor country, residents are anxious to finally get their share of the national economic pie.

The protests, which began in January with the approval and tacit support of local government officials, have morphed into something far more sinister. Once a source of optimism, the mood is now tense, and suspicion of outsiders, including me, is high.

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Earlier this year, more than 10,000 people gathered from across the region in Mashujaa Park to register their discontent about the pipeline and plan their next move. Mashujaa is the Swahili term for “heroes” and the park was built to commemorate Tanzania’s support for Mozambican independence. Though mostly non-violent, some protesters destroyed government offices leading to a crackdown by the police. At least four protesters were killed. Far from dimming the energy of the protesters, discontent moved into the shadows. An overt calm prevailed as protesters, perhaps naively, hoped that their actions would convince the government to change its plans. 

Mashujaa Park

On May 22nd, the Minister of Energy and Minerals tabled his budget in Parliament. The budget confirmed the construction of a 500-kilometer long pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam. The gas is to be processed at a new plant built in Dar, bringing the total cost of the project to over 1.2 billion (borrowed) dollars. 

Residents of the region were waiting anxiously for the budget announcement. Text messages, circulated days in advance, announced a massive strike if the pipeline was confirmed. Anonymous posters warned residents of the region not to move about. Minutes before the Minister read his budget, radio and television signals went dead. But the government’s ham fisted attempt to suppress information about the pipeline backfired badly. Residents with satellite TV, unaffected by the blackout, quickly spread the news via text messages. Riots broke out. More than ninety people were arrested in Mtwara town alone. Teargas was used to break up the protests and the army was sent in to restore order. In an angry speech to Parliament, President Jakaya Kikwete denounced the protesters. “Natural resources, regardless of the region where they are found, are the property of all Tanzanians,” he explained.   

But for people in the region, the pipeline raises much larger, unresolved questions. Who should benefit when natural resources are discovered in a ‘backward’ region? What possibility is there for marginalized people to control the whirlwinds of globalization once their ignored lands are suddenly deemed lucrative? What value is national growth for a region that has been left behind by Tanzania’s rising prosperity? Most dramatically, what are the obligations of the citizenry when the government considers you a threat to prosperity?

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Understanding the current anti-pipeline protests in Tanzania requires a visit to an earlier period of African history. The 1960s were an exciting and fraught time in the region. Decolonization was unfolding in waves across the continent. In 1957, Ghana had become the first country in black Africa to gain independence. Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika) became independent in 1961, followed by Kenya in 1963. 

But to the south, Portugal made clear its intentions to break from the examples of the British and French and hold on its own colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Various other southern African states embarked on their own misadventures with white minority rule. The border between Tanzania and Mozambique became, in essence, a dividing line between Africa’s future and its past. Tanzania, ruled by the pan-Africanist leader Julius Nyerere, staked its position by leading the final push for majority rule across the continent.

The Portuguese leadership, authoritarian and unapologetic, rejected calls for the liberation of its colonies, claiming instead that they were integral components of the mother country. Mozambique remained among its most prized possessions. Among the first territories colonized by Europeans, Mozambique was taken by the Portuguese in 1505. Its location just south of the Arab-controlled Swahili coast made it an ideal launching point for Portugal’s broader ambition to control the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes. Pushing out Arab, Persian and Swahili traders, Portugal would go on to rule the colony for the next four centuries. 

In June 1962, three anti-colonial movements from Mozambique met in Dar es Salaam to form the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). Eduardo Mondlane, a professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University, quit his prestigious post after twelve years and returned to Dar in 1963 to take over the leadership of the fledgling movement. Mondlane, a handsome and charismatic polymath, remains among the least celebrated leaders of the African struggle for total independence. Quickly grasping the depth of Portuguese intransigence, Mondlane decided that a broad peasant based guerrilla struggle was the only pathway to liberation against a far superior colonial army. Nyerere ensured a suitable refuge for the movement in Tanzania, setting up political offices for FRELIMO leaders and providing training camps for its fighters. The main training camp was set up in Kongwa in southern Tanzania. Students from Mozambique and throughout the region rushed to join the war effort with the University of Dar es Salaam becoming a key organizing point. FRELIMO drew material support from a broad coalition of actors including several Scandinavian countries, the USSR, China, as well as from across Africa. 

But despite the initial enthusiasm and international support, the war would not come to a quick close. The Portuguese leadership pushed back against the initial salvos of the Mozambican freedom fighters, sending in tens of thousands of troops to bolster the war effort. Over time, FRELIMO came to control vast rural areas of northern Mozambique. But the colonial government remained in firm control of the major cities. The war settled into a decade long slog with neither side able to take an overwhelming advantage. 

The war also turned dirty with assassinations and massacres. Working with Rhodesian special forces, who were given wide latitude to conduct their own operations within Mozambique, the Portuguese army embraced a counterinsurgency program that sought to extend the war behind the frontlines of the rebels. The Portuguese army did not limit its actions to Mozambique, but instead sought to expand the war into Tanzania by crossing the Ruvuma River, which snakes along the border. Its highest profile success was the murder of Mondlane in 1969 via an exploding package delivered to the FRELIMO office in Dar.  

But the Portuguese strategy extended beyond targeting the movement’s leadership. If Tanzania wanted to offer a hand of solidarity to its Mozambican brothers, then Tanzanians would also bear the costs of the war in blood. Portuguese troops attacked and burned villages in southern Tanzania forcing Nyerere to send his own troops to protect the border. By the late 1960s, the war for (i?)Independence in Mozambique had become an unacknowledged war between Tanzania and Portugal reaching its apex (or nadir) in 1970 with Operação Nó Górdio (Operation Gordon Knot), a seven-month campaign during which Portugal sent 35,000 troops to northern Mozambique to seal off FRELIMO infiltration routes from southern Tanzania. 

In 1975, Mozambique won its freedom following a coup in Portugal that overthrew the authoritarian regime. Nyerere was rightly celebrated for his solidarity. But the effect of the Portuguese counterinsurgency was devastating for the people of Mtwara. In addition to lives lost, what minimal infrastructure existed was destroyed. Forty years later, the region still bears the scars.  *

On Toure Drive in Dar es Salaam, just a stone’s throw from the hulking manse of the American Ambassador, a gleaming glass and concrete tower appeared almost overnight. Overlooking the cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean, the building became a bustling hive of activity even as workers affixed the letters H-A-L-L-I-B-U-R-T-O-N to its exterior. 

On my way to Julius Nyerere International Airport, I pass Halliburton’s Tanzanian headquarters. Oil and gas were discovered in southern Tanzanian almost a decade ago. But development of the country’s vast reserves has only now started to generate pace. Companies from at least ten different countries have staked their claims. I am on my way to catch a morning flight on Precision Airways to Mtwara. The plane is filled with workers from Europe, North and South America, and Asia. It is hard to believe that their destination is a neglected coastal town with few paved roads and little in the way of the amenities that usually draw tourists to this part of Africa. 

Workers and residents of the hotel I’ve checked into are unsettled. It has been only a week since the army occupied the village, much to the shock of local residents. The army was sent in after local police forces began to burn down businesses, including the local pharmacy. At least three people were killed. At some point the rioters destroyed a local administrative office. Exactly when this happened is of some debate. But whether it happened before or after the police crackdown is almost irrelevant when confronted by the scale of the destruction. Damage to body and property is widespread and the villagers are keen to voice their anger. Many tell me that they have returned their membership cards in the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution) party in disgust. Others talk of escalating into open conflict.

I meet a seventy-five year old farmer who greets me with a lilting, “A salaam alaikum.” His beard is tinged red with henna and his eyes gleam in the sunlight. “People have lost faith in government,” he tells me. Young men dressed in shiny polyester soccer jerseys gather around to hear our impromptu conversation. When I ask about who organized the protests, he vehemently rejects any suggestion that it was the opposition parties or ‘outside elements’ that deserve credit. The wananchi did it, he says, using the Swahili term for citizens, a point that elicits approving head nods from the youth. “If the government allows the gas to be moved, people are ready to go to war.” More head nodding from the youth as I continue on my way, unsettled by the bombast that my questions have unleashed.

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In 1967, Nyerere pronounced the Arusha Declaration marking Tanzania’s overt turn towards a uniquely African socialism. A convoluted manifesto by any standard, the most original expression of Tanzanian socialism was to be a vast program of village collectivization. Ideally, Nyerere sought to move the country’s vast rural population (over 80 percent) into government planned villages (known as “Ujamaa villages”) that would improve the delivery of basic services, thereby improving rural livelihoods. But almost as soon as implementation began, the program was unraveling. Many of the model villages were poorly designed and the promised improvements in service delivery never materialized. Villages were sometimes placed far from sources of water and schools and hospitals were poorly built and rarely functional. In addition, the government had done little to prepare villagers for the transformative changes it sought to bring. As a result, many villagers had no desire to relocate, repeatedly ignoring increasingly strident commands emanating from frustrated and clueless government planners. 

Rather than back down, the government began using coercion to force the peasantry into the villages. This was less necessary in southern Tanzania where the war with the Portuguese provided a convenient pretext to collect the rural population along the border and resettle them into controllable, and defensible, Ujamaa villages. Compared to other parts of the country, residents of the region were more open to resettlement—part of a long pattern that residents point to as evidence of their willingness to serve as guinea pigs in the name of national development. By 1970, the Ujamaa campaign had been implemented more fully in Mtwara than anywhere else in the country. Fully 38 percent of all Ujamaa villages and 46 percent of all resettled villagers were in the region, despite it possessing less than 5 percent of the total population of the country. Even today, there is little resentment against the program despite the failure of Nyerere’s grand socialist experiment.

By the late 1970s, Nyerere’s socialist ambitions were abandoned and the country entered a prolonged period of economic stagnation. Ujamaa villages were deserted and fell into disrepair. But facing an economic crisis triggered by the crude nationalization of industry, there was little interest in devising a suitable replacement. Instead, Mtwara was left to languish.

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My first stop in Mtwara, the dusty and sleepy capital, is the office of the Regional Commissioner, the highest administrative officer for the region. Colonel Simbakalia, a two decade long decorated veteran of the Tanzanian army, eyes me wearily as I enter his comfortable office in the main administrative building. Not wanting to stir up any trouble on my visit, I have come seeking his blessing to visit the villages at the center of the controversy. 

Fish market in Mtwara town

An imposing and boisterous figure, Simbakalia immediately launches into a diatribe regarding “external elements” stirring up trouble in the region. He suggests that the protests are not locally driven. Rather, they are the machinations of outsiders keen on preserving their political or economic interests. Mozambique, he tells, me has ten times the amount of gas but Tanzania remains the preferred destination for foreign investment… Private energy corporations that have grown fat on Tanzania’s reliance on imported energy have little interest in seeing the pipeline being developed… The logic is plain to see. There is no movement, he declares flatly. 

He gestures towards the door. I gather my things to leave, but first he asks why I have come and what are my interests in the region? I tell him the truth. I am a professor living in Tanzania on a Fulbright who has heard of some troubles and wants to see for myself what is happening. His expression softens, a little. He tells me that any country that discovers natural resources goes through some troubles. Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, even Canada. It’s the curse of oil, he says. He’s not wrong. But oil is accursed by man, not god. And sensible governments can do much to mitigate its effects.

I ask him for written permission to visit the villages to ensure that no one I am seen with is targeted for harassment. He offers tepid oral support. But a written note is not forthcoming. “This is a free country and you are welcome to speak with anyone you want,” he says as I get up to leave, “but I do not recommend it.”

*      *      *

I decide to head to Msimbati, a village at the center of the pipeline controversy. It is a two-hour drive south of the regional capital though only twenty-seven kilometers away as the crow flies. Outside of Msimbati is a marine reserve and beyond that a newly built sand road that leads to a massive gas installation. The Mnazi Bay gas field was discovered by the Italian oil company Agip in 1982, but only in 2004 did the government sign a contract with the Canadian firm Artumas to develop the gas field. It is estimated to possess three to five trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to power industry in Dar es Salaam as well as produce methanol and fertilizer (urea) for export to Asia. 

Destroyed pharmacy

Stores destroyed by government soldiers in Mtwara

For many outside observers, the government’s approach is the correct one. Before I left Dar es Salaam, I had a conversation with a World Bank employee who asked me what people in Mtwara were protesting about. For him, it was evident that a pipeline moving gas from a rural area to the industrial capital was a win-win situation, beyond reproach. The only explanation for the behavior of the protesters had to be emotion, not logic. 

This was a regular theme of people I met in East Africa’s new economic powerhouse, who, often with the best of intentions, insisted that once people in Mtwara understood the irrefutable economic logic of the pipeline, they would no longer feel the need to challenge its construction. Besides, those people in the south are illiterate and backward and just don’t know better, most would add. 

Such perceptions have been fueled by the national media, which many in the region view as hostile to their cause. Journalists have been attacked for their presumed pro-government stance, a reasonable, if problematic, assumption considering the government’s control of the media. News reports do often lean towards the hyperbolic. Prior to my arrival, I read that the army was sent into Msimbati after protesters had destroyed a building at the marine reserve. I pay the building a visit at the edge of the village. It is true that a window has been broken and the door knocked off its hinges. But I struggle to comprehend how such minor vandalism could trigger the government to send in troops to occupy a village for three days. 

Villagers recount to me their harrowing tales of living in the bush while awaiting a safe moment to return to their homes. Their memories are fresh. They narrate to me broken promises of employment, power, and development, all made by top officials in exchange for their cooperation. They are angry; but more than that, disappointed. Disappointed in a government that has told them to sacrifice repeatedly in the interests of the nation, of the continent. Disappointed to hear their own leaders call them selfish, anti-national, and worst of all, anti-development. Development is what they want most of all, they tell me. Some jobs for their children and steady power for their houses. This is what development has been reduced to in an area where the people have so little. They ask me what I intend to do and will President Obama fix the situation during his visit?

On my way out of the village, the FunCargo breaks down on the sand road built for the gas installation. Vehicles are scarce in this area, but eventually a gleaming white Toyota pickup truck with “M&P” emblazoned on its side approaches. M&P are the initials for the French oil firm Maurel & Prom. Its driver, a man from the region, approaches our car to offer his assistance. He determines the battery needs a jump but neither vehicle has a cable. He promises to return. I am skeptical, but my guide, also a local, assures me he will be back. We wait for two hours with no other vehicle passing by. But he returns and soon we are on our way. 

Broken down FunCargo

We stop in a neighboring village and I chat with a local imam resting on the stoop of his simple home. The sun is setting and children enjoy the respite from the day’s dusty heat. They look over frequently, curious about what has merited the attention of yet another outsider. I ask him about rumors that the protests were organized by the Islamist opposition ahead of the 2015 elections. Religion permeates every aspect of social life in the country. Muslims have long felt underrepresented in government and the economy, despite several Tanzanian presidents claiming Islam as their faith. The ruling CCM party, which has controlled Tanzania since independence, has long prided itself on incorporating the full ethnic and religious diversity of the country into its leadership. Under Nyerere, Tanzania maintained a strict policy banning political organization along ethnic or religious lines. It was an important political strategy and one that created a stronger sense of national identity than any other country in the region. But what once was necessary to prevent ethnic or religious conflict now appears a strategy to undercut Muslim activism. Even the census does not record religious affiliation making it impossible to objectively assess the community’s level of marginalization.

Outside of Zanzibar, southern Tanzania is home to the highest density of Muslims in the country. There is a recurring intimation both here and in Dar es Salaam that the region’s marginalization is related to its Islamic character. The Civic United Front, the largest Muslim party, has sought to capitalize on this sentiment in its attacks on the CCM. The imam does not deny its involvement. But he rejects the notion that protesters are mere pawns of opportunistic politicians. He points to Kenya and Zambia, two neighboring countries where opposition parties eventually tumbled long standing ruling parties, to make his point. “Did a change in the ruling party improve the lot of the marginalized in those countries?,” he asks. He smiles as my eyes wander into the distance trailing the children as they move on, bored by our conversation. 

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For all the disastrous effects of the Mozambican war and forced villagization, people in Mtwara never abandoned the ideal of the Tanzanian nation. Under Nyerere, people largely accepted the moral logic of national sacrifice despite the unequal costs born by the region. Indeed, their patriotic ardor remains far more substantial when compared with folks who live in Dar es Salaam. But the debate over the pipeline is fraying the national fabric. 

Tanzania’s current leadership has been hailed internationally for its performance. The country recently cracked the top ten list of Africa’s best governed countries, at least according to the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, becoming the first country in East or Central Africa to achieve that distinction. Yet despite the international acclaim, the country finds itself more fractured than at any point in its post-independence history. Indeed the gap between perceptions of Tanzania abroad and the perspective of its citizens has never been wider. A new constitution is being drafted that threatens to tear apart the fragile union with Zanzibar. Ethnic clashes between farmers and resettled pastoralists have turned violent. And a national election looms in 2015 that will witness the end of current President Jakaya Kikwete’s rule, and is already triggering unprecedented spikes in election related violence. 

Yet the country remains a microcosm for changes occurring across Africa. As Asian capital continues its relentless march seeping into every corner and upturning long entrenched beliefs about Africa’s role in a globalized capitalist international system, traditional powers in the West seek to reassert their dominance. African leaders, long imprisoned by the institutions of global finance, have embraced their newfound freedom by cutting deals with all comers.

For the protesters, Tanzania’s ascendance offers little respite. Promises of “development” have been hollow. They understand that economic growth means jobs, but what good is growth if those jobs never materialize in your village, your town. Where does one turn when everyone wants a piece of your land but have little interest in peace for your people? 

All photos courtesy ©Zachariah Mampilly

Zachariah Mampilly is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vassar College and a Fulbright Visiting Faculty member at the University of Dar es Salaam. Mampilly's research focuses on the nature of contemporary conflict processes, with an emphasis on Africa and South Asia. Based on fieldwork within insurgent-controlled territories in D.R. Congo, Sri Lanka and Sudan, he examines rebel behavior focusing on the governance of civilian populations. He is currently working on a book on popular protests in Africa with Adam Branch, and is the author of Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War (Cornell University Press).