Saturday, 18 May 2013

TANZANIA: Mtwara comes to a standstill

Area which are normally busy in Mtwara were yesterday quiet and riot police manned the municipality to thwart disorder. 

By By Abdallah Bakari The Citizen Correspondent  (email the author)

Posted  Friday, May 17  2013 at  20:43

Mtwara. The political temperature of Mtwara town, headquarters of the southern region with a similar name that is at the heart of controversy over the issue of natural gas exploitation, has shot up again, after nearly three months of relative coolness.
The town, administratively a municipality formally known as Mtwara-Mikindani, was on a virtual standstill on Thursday and yesterday, prompting high-level alertness by the security apparatus.
The situation was occasioned by messages spread by means that included leaflets, urging the residents to suspend major activities, and focus instead, on the tabling of budget estimates of the ministry of Energy and Minerals, via the electronic media.
Many business operators in the usually bustling town shut their premises, and panicky residents moved cautiously, as heavily armed police officers patrolled the streets, ready to quell rioters, should there be any attempt to breach the peace.
The main market and bus station were among the service centres where unusual calmness reigned and internal travel, mainly by motorcycle taxis (bodaboda) was scaled down considerably.
The ‘listen-to-the-budget-speech’ mobilisation was a non-starter however, because yesterday wasn’t its scheduled day of presentation.
Security and safety concerns remain nonetheless, because when that happens next Saturday, ‘Mtwarans’ would still be anxious to know how the sector minister would dwell on the gas issue.
The renewed tension comes against the backdrop of processions by tensed residents late last year, against yet-to-be-tapped natural gas being piped to Dar es Salaam, and the torching of some ruling party leaders’ houses in February this year.
Peace-keeping missions by high-profile leaders, including the Prime Minister, do not seem to have yielded the much-sought calm and reassurance amongst people who had been promised that the government would upgrade Mtwara Port, build a cement factory and modernize the airport.
Some observers theorise that many residents feel the pledges are mere sweeteners intended to buy their calmness, and can thus become easy converts to the ‘gas-for-Mtwara’ philosophy.
The word ‘machinga’ (which has given rise to the English corruption ‘marching guys’) is derived from Mtwara. It refers to the hundreds of young men from what is one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, who have streamed into major urban centres like Dar es Salaam city, to eke out a living as mobile petty traders.
Mtwara Regional Police Commander Linus Sinzumwa is upbeat, reassuring the residents of their safety as well as that of their properties.
“It’s true that some shops have been shut, but Mtwara is peaceful. People are going about their normal businesses. Even bodaboda taxis are ferrying passengers to and from various pick-up and drop-off points.” he remarked.
The sentiments were however contested by some residents, who are claiming that behind the cover of artificial peace lurks serious, peace-threatening tensions. This reporter noted a couple of groups of people locked in animated discussions at several locations of the municipality, but in a peaceful environment.
Someone told The Citizen on Saturday that, lately, guest houses had been hosting strangers who the residents speculated were police and intelligence officers who had been deployed there to beef up security.
In December last year, Mtwara residents raised their voice against a controversial project intending to construct a pipeline for pumping gas from Msambiati Village in the region to Dar es Salaam City.
The residents staged a huge peaceful demonstration walking eight kilometres from Mtawanya Village to Mashujaa grounds, with posters expressing their disapproval of the project.
The uproar ignited a nationwide debate on how locals could benefit from natural resources. Two opposing groups were formed, one in favour of Mtwarans and the other one dismissing their views.
The demonstration was followed by a public rally organised by the Civic United Front party (CUF) on January 19 this year where over 30,000 citizens signed a petition against the gas pipeline project.
The peaceful demonstrations turned violent on January 25 when groups of angry youths destroyed government and private properties, burned a primary court, a ward office at Ufukweni and houses of minister for Regional Administration and Local Government, Ms Hawa Ghasia, and CCM chairperson, Mr Mohamed Sinani.
Violence spread to Masasi the next day where houses of Members of Parliaments, Ms Mariam Kasembe, Ms Anna Abdallah and the CCM district office, and over 20 cars were torched. In the course of the chaos, police were accused of killing seven people.
The chaos prompted the Prime Minister, Mr Mizengo Pinda, to visit the region where he spent two days speaking to different social groups involved in the saga before winding up his three day tour.
Despite the premier’s intervention, questions revolving around the gas pipeline project have not ended, as some groups said they did not understand the proposition by the Premier.
(Additional reporting by Sylivester Ernest)

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