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A new lodestar for Africa?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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December 2, 2006

LONDON - The wheels seem to spin in the sand as we hurtle down the bush track mile after mile from Mtwara, the small town on the Tanzania/Mozambique border. The land is parched, waiting desperately for the rains. In the villages we pass, little thatched houses give way to fields stripped bare of their meagre produce. This is truly one of the poorest backwaters of this very poor country. Then suddenly there is a clearing in it and in the middle, well what is? - The set for a James Bond film? Or a secret Tanzanian missile site, perhaps rented out to the encroaching Chinese African empire?

The new president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, jumps out of the lead car of our convoy and briskly walks up to a white man in a white helmet and grabs his hand. Soon all of us are ensconced in helmets and goggles and led past rows of large window-less steel containers- labelled bedroom 1, bedroom 2, washroom and on and on to view this steel pyramid where a fantastical, space-age, machine races down from the top and drives a pipe, deep, deep, into the ground. A burly Canadian tells me it is 28 days on, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week and then a free ticket home for 28 days off.

We have in fact arrived at the saving grace of Tanzania’s mounting energy crisis. In a country that has depended until now on plenty of rain, full lakes and cheap hydro electric power, the recent drought has depleted the lakes, slowed the turbines and knocked nearly two percentage points off Tanzania’s until now rapid rate of growth. But God works in mysterious ways. Underneath these coastal sands a Canadian company, Artumas, last year discovered gas- enough to power the electricity supply of Mtwara for 800 years, and more is likely to be discovered. Before Christmas, Mtwara and nearby Lindi will have the gas flowing into the turbines and the electricity into their streets, factories and homes. The nearby villages will also be lit up- no repeat of the mistakes that have plagued Nigeria’s oil rich delta where the locals have been bypassed.

Another field has been found to the north and that is starting to power the capital, Dar es Salaam. Gas is going to save Tanzania’s economy and by next year its growth should be restored to last year’s 7%. The president tells me he believes it can go higher to 8% and he yearns for 10%.

When I was here two years ago the western diplomats thought 7% was a bit of a pipe dream. But after last year’s stellar performance they have swallowed their doubts. As Lelde Schmitz, the IMF’s chief told me, once they get over this energy hump, “why not more than 7%?” And even at 7% the UN’s millennium goals are doable- cutting infant mortality by half and putting ten years on life spans within a decade.

Kikwete won the presidency a year ago, after a bruising party primary and then an open general election (albeit against an opposition party that is only just finding its stride). Before him presided Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding father and benign semi-dictator , who whilst ruining the economy with his ultra socialist ideas knitted the diverse tribes of Tanzania into a peaceful whole. Later came Nyerere’s former press secretary, Benjamin Mkapa, who set Tanzania on the path to political and economic reform, producing handsome economic growth, a primary school in every village and a more open political system.

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If Nyerere was Tanzania’s headmaster and Mkapa was its management guru, Kikwete is its font of youthful energy - but a thoughtful one. He is Africa’s Bill Clinton - an ideas driven, charismatic, clear minded, communicator who likes nothing more than to step into a crowd and parley with it. A moderate Muslim in a dangerous neighborhood, he has become a favourite of George W. Bush who has granted him the kind of access before reserved for Africa’s big economic powers, Nigeria and South Africa.

The gas field behind us, we dash for three days along dusty, potholed, back roads, deep into up country. In every village, the crowd is waiting, in every third village he stops, climbs on top of his car and using the state-of-the-art sound truck that accompanies us ad libs words of encouragement. He cracks jokes about condoms, makes them laugh furiously and outlines a future that visibly makes their juices run. In the evening we of the convoy bed down where we can, eat together informally and chat to the president. Everything seems possible. Tanzania, and maybe Africa too, has found its human lodestar. I have been covering Africa for forty years. I have never been so impressed.


Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Power


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