Essays | August 2, 2013

Popular Mobilization and the New Politics of Resource Sovereignty in Tanzania

The Mtwara region, still waiting for their road Marja-Leena Kultanen
The Roads of Mtwara, Tanzania (2005)
Source: Marja-Leena Kultanen (
(cc) Creative Commons from Flickr

In 1972, a resident of Tanzania’s impoverished southeastern region of Mtwara penned an angry missive to the editor of a national newspaper. “In Tanzania, there are two groups of people,” he began. “Those in northern and central regions are the ones who enjoy the country’s fruits of independence and those in southern regions are left behind without any progress.” He cited the government’s geographically lopsided investment in infrastructure and industry as evidence of this inequality, and concluded by posing a poignant question that cut to the heart of the young East African country’s aspirations of national unity: “Why are the southern people ignored?”[i]

Some 40 years later, the longstanding perception of second-class citizenship articulated by this frustrated letter-writer has exploded into a series of full-blown protests against the Tanzanian government, newly accused of not just passively neglecting but actively exploiting the Southeast. The catalyst for Mtwara’s popular uprising was the government’s announcement, following the discovery of natural gas reserves in the region and during a desperate nationwide electricity shortage, of plans to construct a 330-mile pipeline to funnel the gas to the nation’s economic capital of Dar es Salaam. Officials justified the pipeline, funded by a Chinese loan, as an essential response to the failures of hydroelectric generation and Dar es Salaam’s growing power needs. They pointed out that Dar es Salaam – unlike the Southeast – already had the appropriate facilities to convert the gas to electricity and upload it to the national power grid. The fact that Mtwara was to receive a meager 0.3% of the total income generated by the project was harder to explain.

For local people tired of feeling “left behind without any progress,” the prospect of sitting by idly while wealthier regions reaped the benefits of the treasure buried in their own backyard proved untenable. Their response was to stage a claim of resource sovereignty against their own government. This past January, a delegation calling themselves the Mtwara Elders publicly delivered the protesters’ demand: that the gas be processed and converted within Mtwara. Simultaneous riots in Mtwara exposed a rawer strain of popular rage; as government property was torched, dozens of protesters were arrested, and a number of individuals were killed in clashes with police. In late May, further unrest was met with an aggressive show of official force when the army was deployed to use tear gas and live ammunition against protesters, reportedly leading to several citizen deaths. At present, it seems likely that tensions will continue; Tanzanian leaders have made some concessions to the people of Mtwara, but still insist that construction on the pipeline will begin shortly, as planned.

Spokespeople of Tanzania’s ruling political party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), suggest that the Mtwara movement has been orchestrated by opposition party thugs; others wonder if it is motivated by Islamic extremism or anti-Chinese sentiment, or compare it to separatist movements elsewhere. Such explanations reflect a reluctance to take the protesters’ stated agenda seriously, and to recognize the Mtwara uprising as both the result of specific local grievances and part of a broader struggle to redefine the substance and scope of national citizenship across the African continent. Three dimensions of this case are crucial to understanding its nature and significance: the historical dynamics of uneven development within Tanzania, the country’s ongoing transition out of single-party socialism, and the growing global trend of popular direct action against governments that have betrayed their citizens.

Legacies of Uneven Development

Materially and symbolically, Mtwara is a periphery within a global periphery. This marginality is a produced condition, rather than evidence of arrested development. For the past century, the region has been integrated into the global economy, and successive colonial and national economies, on unequal terms that have deepened rather than diminished its relative poverty. Under British rule, Mtwara was part of Tanganyika’s Southern Province, which officials referred to as the “Cinderella Province” – coding the south as economically and cultural backward, but holding up the promise of a fairy tale transformation under colonial capitalism. There were to be no perfectly fitting glass slippers for Mtwara, however. Aside from a massive development project (the postwar Groundnut Scheme) that turned out to be a logistical disaster, the colonial regime treated the area simply as a reserve of cheap labor. Over time, Mtwara farmers began growing cashews for export, but the local lack of facilities for transporting, storing, and processing nuts kept profits low.

After independence, the national government adopted a platform of socialist equality and declared its intention to construct a road connecting Mtwara to Dar es Salaam, in order to end Mtwara’s isolation and identity as a remote backwater. Fifty years later, and long after the demise of Tanzanian socialism, the Mtwara-Dar es Salaam road remains unfinished. Today, the region’s economy is still based on cashew production, which is still limited by poor infrastructure. Many young Mtwara residents, seeing no livelihood options at home, migrate to work as petty traders in northern cities, where they often face discrimination. This situation is not unique; southern Italy, northeastern Brazil, and Appalachia are among numerous examples of national peripheries that have been underdeveloped along similar lines. Many of these sites also supply resources – like timber and coal – that power growth in the rest of their countries. Yet the spectacle of the Tanzanian government jumping to build a gas pipeline from Mtwara while it has failed to pave a basic road along that same route for half a century stands out for its stark instrumentalism. CCM’s invocation of the rationale of technical efficiency over that of welfarist obligation to justify the gas extraction illuminates the extent to which the logic of neoliberal capitalism has come to dictate governance in contemporary Tanzania. Mtwara’s lack of infrastructure has, in effect, disqualified it from benefiting from the very resources that could help overcome this underdevelopment.

Multi-Party Politics and the Postsocialist State

The cycle of uneven development may be powerful, but it is contingent upon the consent of those exploited. Since the 1980s, Tanzanians across the country have suffered the enduring effects of austerity cuts under World Bank and International Monetary Fund-imposed structural adjustment policies, including drastically reduced social services and living conditions for average citizens. More recently, the Tanzanian government has joined many other African regimes in selling off land and minerals to foreign parties under poorly regulated arrangements. The welfare state of the early independence era has essentially dissolved. By contrast, the political structure of the socialist state has been slower to perish. Though in 1992 Tanzania became a multi-party state after decades of single-party rule by CCM, the latter has continued to hold onto power. However, as the CCM-dominated regime’s capacity for self-legitimation as anti-colonial liberators or socialist providers wears exceedingly thin, opposition parties like Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) and Civic United Front (CUF) have gained increased support.

Sensing an opportunity to capitalize on popular disaffection with the current government, Chadema and CUF have both spoken out against the gas pipeline. In this case, as in others, CCM has responded by digging in its heels and claiming a monopoly on representing the interests of the greater national good. President Jakaya Kikwete has repeatedly pronounced that all resources on Tanzanian soil belong to all Tanzanians, insinuating greed or disloyalty on the part of the Mtwara protesters. Yet at its core the Mtwara movement is a call for the redefinition of national citizenship as a more robust institution, rather than a threat to the integrity of the Tanzanian national unit. Protesters are asserting ownership over regional resources through an appeal for the redistribution of national wealth to fund the local creation of energy infrastructure. In doing so, they are upholding their economic rights as equal members of a broader national community, instead of merely succumbing to a myopic parochialism.

A New Era of Popular Mobilization

Though associated with opposition parties’ bid for power, the Mtwara protests have also expanded the ongoing push for Tanzania’s democratization beyond the sphere of electoral politics. The implications of this shift depend on the movement’s ability to transcend its territorial confines. Not all inequality within Tanzania is organized geographically, and much resource extraction occurs at the hands of foreign companies rather than the national government. Nonetheless, the country’s internal economic disparities are intensifying amidst the energy windfalls and GDP growth of recent years. At least one third of the Tanzanian population lives below the poverty line and the vast majority goes without electricity. Urban employment prospects are limited despite high living costs, and rural farmers face food insecurity and displacement by land-grabbing corporate interests. If other marginalized citizens can identify with the broad spirit (and not just the specific agenda) of the Mtwara movement, then Tanzania may soon see a surge in popular protest along with a turnover in party leadership.

In this way, the people of Mtwara might convert their historical condition of being “left behind” into a position at the forefront of a new politics of direct action and resource sovereignty on a national scale – in the vein of last year’s Occupy Nigeria movement or Brazil’s recent popular uprising. Such mobilization would likely require additional triggers and invite forceful state repression, and could conceivably be either encouraged or constrained by the increasingly vibrant and violent nature of Tanzanian multi-party politics. Though the future remains unclear, one thing is certain: the Mtwara protests have significantly altered Tanzania’s political landscape by highlighting the urgency of a more substantive and equitable configuration of national citizenship.



[i] Azizi Muhibu, “A Look at Southern Tanzania.” Daily News, August 3 1972.



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