by Deodatus Balile in Dar es Salaam / SabahiThe Tanzanian government is deploying the People’s Defence Force to Mtwara after mass protests staged by residents opposed to the construction of a gas pipeline from Mtwara to Dar es Salaam turned violent.
Minister of Home Affairs Emmanuel Nchimbi announced the decision to parliament on Thursday (May 23rd). He said the government decided to maintain “law and order” in Mtwara, and should not be blamed for steps taken against aggressors.
Some people in Mtwara were spreading brochures calling on residents to protest with violence against the Ministry of Energy and Minerals budget, which was tabled in parliament Wednesday, if the minister responsible did not promise to stop the gas pipe construction, which has been some residents’ long standing demand, Nchimbi told lawmakers.
To the contrary, Minister of Energy and Minerals Sospeter Muhongo announced in a televised speech that the construction of the gas pipeline would continue as planned, sparking the violence in the region.
Mtwara residents demolished the Mikindani Bridge that connects Mtwara with Lindi region, torched about ten houses including one that belongs to journalist Kassim Mikongolo of Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation, and burnt several government and ruling party offices, Nchimbi said.
The home affairs minister confirmed to parliament that riot police used teargas to disperse protestors.
“When it reached this stage, the Mtwara Regional Commissioner asked the higher authority to authorise the use of the army, and this was the only option,” Nchimbi said.
As troops deployed on Wednesday, however, one of the vehicles transporting them to Mtwara got in an accident and four soldiers died.
“I want to assure Tanzanians that the blood of our four committed soldiers who got in the accident yesterday and died while on their way to Mtwara is not lost,” Nchimbi told parliament. “We will crack down on every perpetrator of the violence and bring them to justice.”
Gas pipeline construction to continue: Kikwete
In an unusual move, President Jakaya Kikwete issued a strong statement at 10 pm Wednesday, saying the call to stop construction of the gas pipeline was unacceptable. He pledged that the government would crack down on whoever is propagating the aggression in Mtwara.
“I believe it is something unacceptable that national resources can be restricted only to the place where they are found,” Kikwete said. “It has never happened in any country of this world, there is no such policy anywhere, and it cannot start from Mtwara.”
Kikwete instructed security forces to search everyone involved in the violence and bring them to justice.
Suspending construction of the gas pipeline is not going to happen under his government, Kikwete said. The government has promised to build 57 factories in Mtwara and the work has started, he said, therefore whoever is instigating residents on the grounds that Mtwara residents would be left with nothing once the gas is taken to Dar es Salaam has a personal agenda.
Speaker of the National Assembly Anne Makinda suspended parliament’s business Wednesday evening to give the government time to restore peace in Mtwara.
“Yesterday I suspended the parliament business … But based on the situation on the ground in Mtwara, I am now once again adjourning the parliament business until [Friday],” Makinda told parliamentarians in Dodoma. “The reason behind [this decision] is to give ourselves time to help our brothers and sisters in Mtwara to calm down.”
Mtwara residents tense, businesses closed
Hassan Chikongowe, a 46-year-old resident of Mtwara told Sabahi over the phone how the violence started on Wednesday.
“All people were asked to get prepared for this,” he said. “We were closely watching the minister tabling the budget. Our interests were to hear him say the plan to construct the pipe is put off, but to our shock, he said the plan is going on as planned. That is when people took to the streets.”
Chikongowe said the situation is tense in Mtwara as police are searching for people house-to-house and all businesses in the town have been closed.
Neville Meena, secretary general of the Tanzania Editors Forum, said journalists in Mtwara have been forced to hide because protesters launched a campaign to kill them.
“Out of desperation, [the protesters] think journalists are not reporting enough of what they want, and now they think the solution is to kill them,” Meena told Sabahi. “They have burnt Mikongolo’s house and they are hunting for others. We have contacted police to rescue them and efforts are going on.”
Residents have been misled, government says
Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Energy and Minerals Joachim Maswi told Sabahi that Mtwara residents have been misled and it is in their interest to construct the gas pipe that will help grow the national economy and benefit all Tanzanians.
He said the gas will not be taken to Dar es Salaam only to generate electricity for the commercial capital as purported, but rather it has multiple uses including industrial and home uses.
This was not the first time violent riots erupted in Mtwara. In January, protests over the gas pipeline left four dead and 12 injured, and caused about 1.5 billion shillings ($922,000) in damages.
After a series of protests earlier this year, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda said the government failed to educate residents about how the pipeline would be managed.
In February, Mtwara Regional Commissioner Colonel Joseph Simbakalia announced plans to improve communication between Mtwara residents and the Tanzanian government regarding the area’s gas resources.
At that time, Kikwete said 16% of the gas extracted in Mtwara would go to Dar es Salaam, with the remainder to stay in Mtwara for various uses, including for export by sea.