by Ben Taylor

Port deal sparks heated controversy

Prof Makame Mbarawa (centre) at the container port area

A new agreement for the management of key port infrastructure in Tanzania has generated intense heat and controversy, threatening to undermine the improved democratic environment that had been emerging under President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

The deal – an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the Government of Tanzania and the Emirate of Dubai – would potentially see DP World, an Emirati multinational logistics company, take control of the operations of a large part of Dar es Salaam port. Though the agreement was agreed and signed back in 2022, it only came to public attention more recently when the documents were leaked on social media in May 2023.

What does the agreement say?
The controversy stems initially from the apparently highly favourable terms offered to DP World. Critics point to a part of the IGA that they claim offers DP World a 100-year contract to manage the port. They also highlight a lack of opportunities for scrutiny in the process through which the agreement was negotiated and signed, and claim the agreement is in breach of both Tanzanian and international law.

Dr Nshala, former President of the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) and now Executive Director of the environmental group Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team (LEAT), described the controversial deal on social media as equivalent to “selling the country off to foreigners,” pointing out that the decision to sign such a deal constituted “betrayal and treason” against Tanzania.

Mdude Nyagali, of opposition party Chadema, asked “how could our government sign as bad a contract as this?” Mr Nyagali questioned. “It is either they were drunk or bribed.”

Concerns extended well beyond activists and opposition politicians, however. The Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC – the group comprising all Roman Catholic Bishops in Tanzania), rejected the port agreement. Rev. Charles Kitima, secretary general of TEC released a statement saying that the bishops see that most citizens do not want this agreement that gives the foreign investor the authority and right to own major economic infrastructure.

The government, however, defended the agreement. Works and transport minister, Makame Mbarawa, said that by working with DP World, the government expects to increase revenue collection through the port by over 200% in the next ten years, from the current TSh 7.8 trillion per year to TSh 26 trillion in the next decade.

“The potential private sector investment could enhance the competitiveness of Dar es Salaam Port by improving service quality and increasing efficiency,” he said. “It is on those grounds that more business could be drawn to the port, thus boosting revenue and contributing to Tanzania’s overall economic development.”

On why the government chose DP World, Prof Mbarawa said the company was uniquely positioned to partner with the government as it is a global logistics company that able to deliver the required transformation across the entire logistics value chain. “The company has a proven track record of managing, operating and investing in trade infrastructure in Africa for over 20 years to the highest international standards,” he said. “With DP World, we expect to see improvement in the port’s performance. We expect to see the discharge period of vessels being cut to one day from the current four to five.”

President Samia Suluhu Hassan herself has described the deal as a “rare opportunity,” urging Tanzanians to stop “quarrelling” and support her administration’s efforts to transform the country.

Plasduce Mbossa, director general of the Tanzania Ports Authority (TPA) also defended the specifics of the IGA. He said there was misinformation being spread by those opposed to the plan. “It seems those who brought the 100 years aspect in the subject have their own interests. … It is a complete distortion of facts”. The agreement, he said, merely spells out the areas of cooperation between Tanzania and the emirate of Dubai, adding that this included training, information and communication technology and in the development and improvement of ports in general.

If the agreement is endorsed by Parliament, he explained, it will pave the way for more negotiations between TPA and DP World with regard to implementation of the plan. “No implementation agreements have yet been signed,” he said, adding that they had not even been negotiated.
What the IGA says is that the IGA will cease to operate as soon as any implementation agreement between the Tanzanian authorities and DP World ends. What this means is that actual time for the contract will be known from the agreements that will follow.”

Reactions and counter-reactions. And over-reactions?
It is likely that many on both sides of the public debate – including, frankly, this correspondent – are ill-qualified to reach a sound judgement on the details of the agreement itself. Nevertheless, the debate prompted by the leak of the IGA has stirred up reactions that have led some to question whether the apparent moves by President Samia to re-open democratic space in Tanzania are indeed genuine.

Several prominent critics of the deal have been summoned by the police and/or arrested. This includes the former President of the Tanganyika Law Society Dr. Rugemeleza Nshala, and opposition politician Mdude Nyagali. Another lawyer and critic of the deal, Peter Madeleka, was arrested after the High Court unexpectedly cancelled a previous plea-bargaining agreement relating to a case from 2020. Former Tanzanian Ambassador to Sweden, Dr Wilbroad Slaa, has been arrested and stripped of his title.

The attorney general, Eliezer Feleshi, filed an application to the Advocate’s Committee – Tanzania’s disciplinary institution for lawyers – alleging professional misconduct by another lawyer, Boniface Mwabukasi, because of remarks he made about the deal, seeking a declaration that he had committed “gross professional misconduct” and an order to bar him from practicing law.

The arrest of the critics came shortly after the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Camilius Wambura, warned that police would find and arrest people who have declared nationwide mass demonstrations against the deal (demonstrations that never materialised on any meaningful scale). He described their calls to “bring down the government” before 2025 as “treason,” which “cannot be tolerated.”

At least two dozen people have been arrested since June for opposing the deal, according to Human Rights Watch. Dr Slaa, Adv Mwabukusi, and Mr Nyagali remain in detention at the time of writing. They face various charges, including both sedition and treason. Treason carries a mandatory death penalty and is listed as an unbailable offence under section 148 of the country’s Criminal Procedures Act.

Party politics, democracy and freedom of expression
In early July, CCM’s top leadership discussed and endorsed the deal, resolving to intensify awareness about the importance of the agreement, emphasizing that the deal is as per the CCM’s manifesto. The party secretary general, Daniel Chongolo, has also called on all CCM members and leaders to defend the deal. “This is a CCM initiative, if you see any CCM member anywhere not defending this deal, be sure to doubt his commitment to the party,” he said at a rally in Mbeya.

The opposition, most particularly Chadema, has adopted the port deal as one of its key issues. In July, the party chair announced a new campaign (#OkoaBandariZetu #SaveOurPorts) to run alongside their existing ‘255’ campaign focusing on the new constitution. The party leadership has vowed that this will remain a big issue unless the contract is terminated, “This is a big political agenda for the next twenty years, not just for the 2025 election,” said CHADEMA Vice Chairperson, Tundu Lissu.

The spectre of the 2025 election clearly looms large over the debate, with both opposition parties and President Samia’s opponents within CCM trying to take advantage of the issue. Nevertheless, the heavy-handed actions of the government in general and the police in particular in response to public criticism has alarmed many who had previously thought President Samia’s administration was trying to open up democratic space. After all, what is freedom of expression if it does not include the right to criticise?

“The Tanzanian government’s suppression of its critics is a troubling sign of its low tolerance for dissenting views,” said Oryem Nyeko, Tanzania researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of clamping down on critics, the government should respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly, and listen to them.”

Human rights organisations in Tanzania spoke out against authorities’ decision to detain several people who have been criticising the agreement, condemning the “arbitrary arrests” of the deal’s critics and calling for their “immediate and unconditional” release.

“We firmly believe that every person is entitled to freedom of speech and opinion on everything happening in the country, including on the port deal,” said Anna Henga, Executive Director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), reading a joint statement on behalf of the organisations. “People do not deserve to be threatened for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, backed by regional and international instruments to which Tanzania is a signatory,” she added.

The government said that those who were condemning the arrest of the critics of the Tanzania-Dubai intergovernmental agreement had failed to differentiate between criticism of the deal and the rule of law.

Nape Nnauye, the Minister for Information, Communication and Information Technology, said that no one had been arrested for criticising the deal, but rather they had violated the country’s laws. They had made “specific public threats of a serious criminal nature, which include calling for the violent overthrow of the government of the day,” he said.

“The suspects, some of whom publicly sought to incite citizens to bear arms against the Tanzania Police Force, were apprehended to send a strong message to deter any offenders from committing criminal offences,” Mr Nnauye added. “The arrests do not, in any way, restrict freedom of expression in Tanzania, but are part of the law enforcement to prevent possible social unrest that may result from calls for a rebellion against a democratically-elected government,” he clarified.

Concerns for the state of democracy rose further, however, in early September, when opposition leader Tundu Lissu was himself briefly arrested, along with various aides and security guards, for holding an allegedly unlawful assembly. A party spokesperson said “police entered his [hotel] room by force and took him away without telling where they were going.”

Arusha regional police commander Justine Masejo later said they had detained Lissu and three others for questioning about accusations they were holding an unlawfully assembly and preventing police from doing their job. Lissu was released on bail a few hours later.

Since returning from exile in January (see previous issues of TA), Lissu has been holding political rallies across the country, at which he had voiced criticism of the port agreement. His return from exile followed several moves by President Samia to re-open democratic space, including the lifting a six-year ban on political rallies.

Seeking solutions
Former Controller and Auditor General (CAG) Mussa Assad has tentatively backed the controversial agreement, and had some suggestions for how the issue could be resolved. Prof Assad, currently the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Muslim University of Morogoro (MUM), said Tanzania does not have the luxury to shirk foreign investments and lacks much of what it takes to build a prosperous economy. He said that much of the deal’s criticism is being informed by the lack of general understanding of investment issues and the misreading of the intergovernmental agreement itself.

On the issue of the 100-year time-frame, Prof Assad said agreements between two countries usually do not have a timeframe, adding that the issue would be considered in the project-specific contracts. However, he added, “because people have complained about it, the government can speak to its partners and agree to a specified duration with the IGA so that people can be happy about it,” he said.

He also backed a proposal shared by the leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, Zitto Kabwe, of forming a company that is jointly-owned by TPA, DP World and Tanzanians through the Dar es Salaam Stock Exchange and which will be responsible for the port’s operations.

Prof Assad warned against leaving everything to investors, urging the government to sit down with DP World and agree on a specific period for reviewing each other based on the agreed responsibilities, which could be after every four or five years.

At the start of September, there were possible signs that even the government was looking for a way out. They withdrew proposed modifications to two laws controlling Tanzania’s natural resources that were up for debate in Parliament. Attorney General Eliezer Feleshi said the government had accepted “advice” from a house committee to drop proposed legislative amendments that would appear to remove a potential legal obstacle to the controversial IGA.

Whether this is indeed a sign of compromise, or merely a shift in tactics, remains to be seen.

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