Nyagali and Mwabukisi must be freed, Tanzania/UAE port deal must be openly discussed

Nyagali and Mwabukisi must be freed, Tanzania/UAE port deal must be openly discussed
Courtesy: Financial Times

Three prominent Tanzanian political actors have been jailed this month for criticising a port deal between the UAE and the state authorities. Between the 12th and 13th of August 2023, Wilibrod Slaa, former parliamentarian and Ambassador, Boniface Mwabukusi, lawyer and activist, and Mdude Nyagali, also an activist, were all arrested for organising conferences and publicly criticising the agreement citing threats to Tanzanian sovereignty. A fourth figure, former President of the Tanganyika Law Society, has been forced to flee the country after threats of arbitrary arrest. Though, according to reports, Slaa was freed on the 19th August, there is little information confirming. 


The port deal, established initially in October 2022, would hand significant authority, management, operational and developmental control of the nations ports to UAE authorities and investors. Endorsed by parliament in June 2023, many Tanzanian’s worried for the nations control over its own capital infrastructure and Mwabukusi, established a court petition arguing that the deal ‘violates Tanzania’s constitution’ by endangering national sovereignty and security. 


Slaa, Mwabukusi and Nyagali all expressed public concern regarding the matter, attending various conferences. They were all subsequently arrested after a number of ‘incidents’. The charges brought forward, impACT suggests, indicate a clear and obvious attempt to quickly silence any dissent regarding the deal. Before the arrest, Camilius Wambura, Inspector General of the Police, stated that the public criticisms were tantamount to “seditious statements”, suggesting that they were “calling for national protest” and “inciting the public to overthrow the government”. All three were denied bail, all three are facing treason charges, which includes a mandatory death penalty. Twenty-four others have been arrested, but later released. impACT implores the Tanzanian authorities to continue after the release of Slaa and allow for the freeing of Mwabukusi and Nyagali to restore confidence in public political expression. 


The sensitivity of the Tanzanian state to criticisms of this particular deal indicate institutional awareness of the possible dangers of it. Of course, investment in and the taking of administrative control of African capital infrastructure is not a new phenomenon. Ports are, and have been, integral to Africa’s economic connectivity for centuries. Though of course, the origins of ports do not solely link to the growth of European colonialism, the African coast was vital important to the functioning of the British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese Empires which established the foundations for modern trade. Vast amounts of wealth, often in the form of valuable raw materials and of course, slaves left the coastlines for various destination. The continental coastline maintains its significance to this day, and, over the past 20 years, has seen an explosion in infrastructural investment by external sources. Between 2004 to 2019, over $50billion USD was spent on infrastructure, thirteen times more than the amount in over the previous fourteen years. The routes remain lucrative because many financially poor, resource rich, African nations, through domestic policies and strong-arming from various regional powers and global financial institutions have maintained the continent as almost solely a resource extractive region. The focus remains on the removal of raw resources, whether that be precious metals, foodstuffs, or clothing materials to capital-rich nations. Though, rather generalised, this process characterises many poorer nations economies on the continent. Largely, this has enriched domestic elites at the expense of the nation, both economically and environmentally. 


The UAE and other Gulf States are heavily reliant on the continuation of cheap raw materials, particularly foodstuffs (as was seen by the 2010 Food Price Crisis), from the continent. The deal to maintain, and control, ports like those in Tanzania can certainly be understood from this perspective. Administrative and developmental oversight over zones vital to your own domestic balance sheet could allow certain controls over supply. 


But perhaps the most interesting illustration of this deal is Emirati demand for removing oppositional and perhaps more competitive port centres from their path. Much alike other Gulf States, the UAE is reliant on its ports. For many, a surprising realisation is that ports contribution to GDP stands far above that of oil, 21% to roughly 1% respectively. At their fortuitous position at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia places Gulf ports at a vital pinch point that allows for the flow of various goods at high volumes. To UAE policymakers, African nations, like Tanzania,  stand in opposition to the growth of local ports. Emirati sentiment is that, ports will only increase in value to the state, and as they transition from oil to renewable energies, they are seen as a method to soothe initial teething pains of this progression. It is likely that many of the acquired foreign ports across the African continent will feed into Jebel Ali Port, Dubai’s largest. 


The danger that such deals pose to Tanzania and other nations indicates the importance of freeing the deals’ critics. impACT implores the Tanzanian Government to release Slaa, Mwabukusi and Nyagali. Clearly contentious, handing over administrative control over the nations most major ports illuminates a number of sovereignty and security issues that must be discussed in the public domain. Ensuring the airing of various political opinions in healthy domestic political negotiation is vital to finding a amicable solution to a complex issue. impACT suggests that this cannot happen without confidence in the democratic workings of a nation. This will surely be absent with the arrest of political opposition and overall, harmful.  


Additionally, the international community must be more wary of various ‘port and infrastructure’ deals across the African continent. Various activities of international groups, whether that be states like the US and China or private groups like the Wagner Group, have created similar conditions to the 19th Century scramble for Africa. The initial euphoria of large direct investments into African nations are often met with various worrying incursions into national sovereignty. Chinese exploitation of workers in Cobalt mines (a vital material for tech, 70% of extracted goods was sent to China at various points in the 2010s), is just one example of various incidents of resource extraction. The sovereignty of the Tanzanian people must be respected, these deals must receive public support for the health of the continent.


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