Mtwara or Lindi: Oil and Gas in Constructing Rival Port Cities
Mtwara is booming and buzzing. It was not like this seven years ago when I first saw the town. Why such a dramatic change? The answer seemed to be crystal clear: oil and gas.
Even the richest man in Africa, hailing from an oil producing country, is also frequently visiting Mtwara. He is constructing a cement plant named after him – Dangote Industries (Tanzania) Limited. No wonder roads are being paved and hotels are getting upgraded.
As my childhood friend, who moved there, has aptly put it in the title of his blog, Mtwara Kumekucha. But, surprisingly, I hardly saw any significant change at the old port. Why?
Sitting at the famous Bandari Club, itself a far cry from the glory of its good olden days, I lazily watched its workers play Bao and wondered what is happening. I then asked one of them if Mtwara has already started to benefit from gas discovery and oil prospecting.
His answer was brief: “No, not yet.” What about all the changes that we are seeing, I kept enquiring. He didn’t seem amused. Then, disturbingly, he suddenly gave me an elaborate explanation: “We cannot really tell until oil is found!” And constructing a port, I quipped.
For him my question deserved a contextual analysis. He started explaining how far the place where they were prospecting for oil is – somewhere near Mozambique and the Comoros. By way of triangulating, I vaguely recalled, in my mental map coupled with its faulty memory, an exploration activity map from the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC) that I had seen before and found his premise sound. “So,” he argued, “they may find it reasonable to locate a port somewhere closer, i.e., not Mtwara!”
Lindi came up as a potential port. I mentioned Kilwa. But he affirmed that even that is in Lindi. Another worker mentioned another site in Mtwara yet no one knew where exactly the new port would be constructed. Interestingly, later on someone who had encountered some oil prospectors alleged that there is an agreement among them on where to build it.
Two months down the line that conversation lingers in my head. Then I stumble on the writings of a visitor who observed these places on the eve and dawn of independence in 1961. In her colonial travelogue on Tanganyika: Sail in the Wilderness, with a foreword by none other than Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Kathleen Stahl tells a tale of two rival ports.
The tale is so telling that it needs to be cited in length: “The whole artificiality of the situation began when the decision was taken in London by the British Government in 1947 to make Mtwara the groundnut port instead of Lindi. Ten years later the Tanganyika government was still enmeshed in the consequences of that decision, and the two ports were like rival characters in a little drama not yet played out...As for the choice of the port, Lindi offered many advantages. It was already an established seaport; it was the provincial headquarters with all administrative services, and it had the main road through the province starting in the port”. After all what was to be shipped grew therein.
Stahl expounded: “The conflict between Lindi and Mtwara was not at once apparent for the simple reason that while Mtwara was the designated port, Lindi did the actual traffic. The only road running out Mtwara was the 70 miles of bad winding coastal road to Lindi. Thus, even supposing that it had been practicable to import through Mtwara all the vast tonnage of equipment needed for the Nachingwea scheme all that could have then been done was to send it up by road to Lindi and then 100 miles inland to the groundnut area.”
“Moreover,” she noted, “owing to the nature of the ground the new railway from Mtwara to Nachingwea could not be built as quickly, by a margin of two years, as a railway from the head of Lindi creek to Nachingwea. All the vast quantities of equipment and stores imported for the groundnut scheme then went to Lindi…. It was a boom town as never before in its history.” Karim Hirji who grew up there during that time also attests to this.
In his recent memoir on Growing Up with Tanzania: Memories, Musings and Maths, he thus recalls and analyzes what Aga Khan III, who had visited Lindi in 1946, had advised Ismailis: “The advice to set up shop in the south likely had the nod of the British rulers who were instituting a massive groundnuts production scheme in central and southern Tanzania. It came with an influx of colonial officials, company employees and their families. The Asians were to be the middlemen for the European firms, and were as well expected to establish the service infrastructure for colonial rule, thereby enabling the European way of life to operate without too many glitches.” By 1957 they totaled 1,800.
Hirji concludes: “The poorly conceived schemed failed in a matter of years. The bulk of the European left, but the Asians stayed behind. Groundnuts or not, their presence was vital for the import-export structure to take root, expand geographically and flourish financially.” As such they experienced the rivalry between Lindi and Mtwara port towns.
When the schemed failed by 1951 what it left, as Stahl noted, were “the port of Lindi and the new railways from it, both in actual working, and at Mtwara half a port and half a railway.” Hence “a decision had to be made whether to carry on with Mtwara or to give it up and leave Lindi as the port for the Southern Province.” Interestingly, “Mtwara won and it was resolved to complete the port and railway on their original scale as planned.”
For Stahl, what followed after “was a case of killing Lindi to give life to Mtwara. Every device was used to induce the trade of Lindi to go over to Mtwara.” According to her, the “search” had “been for ways and means to persuade the old-established thriving Asian commercial community at Lindi to transplant itself and forsake the bright lights of the town, the only bright lights in the province, and all its civil amenities, schools, hospitals, cinema, sports club and telephone system, for the [then] virgin marshy bush of Mtwara.”
To that end, she noted, in “1953 provincial headquarters were removed from Lindi to Mtwara where a large new building had been put up to house them.” The “failure of this gesture to arouse any response”, Stahl conjectured, “may be regarded as disproving the old adage that trade follows the flag.” Nevertheless, in “1954 the railway from Lindi to Nachingwea was pulled up.” That “same year”, as Stahl noted, “saw a grand opening of Mtwara port and the railway connecting it with Nachingwea…. By the end of the year it became apparent that losses would be greater than expected on both the railway and the port since the actual tonnages available were far less than had been imagined. The railway services were [then] cut down to achieve economies and differential port rates were introduced in order to make it cheaper for ships to use Mtwara rather than Lindi.”
Then, Stahl thus concluded: “Finally in 1955 it was decided that it was unnecessary to have two ports for the Southern Province and that Lindi must go. As the coup de grace, the drastic decision was taken to remove all lighterage and port facilities from Lindi.” It is a decision that made her curious mind wonder whether it “would give life to Mtwara.”
Her ‘iffy’ take on what might have happen thus remains relevant to us today, notwithstanding their colonial clouding: “Had Mtwara never been invented, Lindi would still be a booming port and the provincial headquarters might be moving, not to Mtwara, but inland to Masasi, poised to push the development of the [then] province farther west.”
The Southern Question in Tanzania that tends to pit Dar es Salaam against Mtwara when it comes to oil and gas remains unresolved. However, in our quest to resolve it let us not forget what we can term ‘the Southern Question within the Southern Question’, i.e., that of the role of Lindi vis-à-vis Mtwara port city in relation to oil and gas.