by Shermax Ngahemera originally published by the IJUTA, the Investigative Journalists Union of Tanzania
China is providing the financing to develop a port at Bagamoyo which, when complete, will be the biggest port in Africa. However the project has drawn criticism from politicians and other sources, who say it’s too expensive and that their input was never sought before it was selected. Tanzanian journalist Shermarx Ngahemera examines the claims around the project.
The visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Tanzania in March 2013 soon after his inauguration was a diplomatic coup for the East African country; it was the first African country he was visiting. Hu Jintao, his predecessor, had visited in 2009. As the two visits show, the two countries enjoy cordial and fruitful relations.
While in Tanzania Xi Jinping signed 16 agreements, one of which is an undertaking to develop a massive port at Bagamoyo, about 60 kilometres north of Dar es Salaam city. It is billed as the biggest port in Africa once complete, and will handle 20 times more cargo than Dar es Salaam port, which is currently Tanzania’s largest port. The port is expected to facilitate trade in the region by acting as a hub for raw materials coming in and out neighbouring landlocked countries, as well as bringing Chinese manufactured goods into the region.
China will also help in connecting the port to existing transport networks by upgrading and establishing new roads and railways.
However, the grand scope of the project, as well as its cost – $10 billion – has led some to speculate that there is more to it than meets the eye. At the centre of these concerns is the discreetness of the project and that the Chinese were all too willing to finance a gigantic project that seems, to many people, too grand and therefore unnecessary.
The port idea was apparently pushed through Parliament by the ruling party, which has an absolute majority, with barely any debate. It has also been pointed out that there is no need for a larger port in Bagamoyo when the port at Dar es Salaam, currently the largest in Tanzania, is underutilized while Tanga in the north and Mtwara in the south are dormant.
Bagamoyo port selection
In March 2008 the Tanzania Ports Authority (TPA) hired consultants to prepare an outline for the development of both coastal and lake ports in Tanzania. The consultants produced a final report in February 2010 which was adopted as a blue print for port development in the country.
According to the consultants’ report, Dar es Salaam port provides sufficient capacity to handle expected traffic up to 2016 in the high forecast case, and 2020 in the low forecast case. After that, a completely new area will have to be opened up for port development. It recommended the construction of a port at Bagamoyo to remedy this.
A large scale development of container and vehicle facilities at Bagamoyo, combined with smaller scale dry bulk and multi-purpose terminals at Mwambani Bay was agreed on by the Tanzania Ports Authority.
While briefing the Mayor of Valejo, California in the United States, the Director of Mobilization and Services at the Export Processing Zone Authority, Zawadia Nanyaro, said the government has set aside more than 22,000 acres as a special area for investment – the Economic Development Zone – in Bagamoyo. Zawadia said a modern port and international airport to serve the industrial city will be built.
According to Open Data, a website which “collects, curates, and publishes” development finance data, the $10bn project plans to handle more than 20 million containers per year and also includes construction of a standard gauge railway link to the central corridor railway at Ruvu Station and an extended link with the TAZARA railway. A highway to link the port to the Uhuru Highway that goes to Zambia will also be built.
Parliament kept in the dark
Some members of the opposition in Parliament have however questioned the award of the Bagamoyo Port development to China, saying Parliament was not informed about the deal. They are also against the lease reportedly granted to China to operate the port for forty years, and also argue that the cost involved is too high compared to similar projects elsewhere.
It has also been pointed out that a port of bigger-than-necessary capacity facing the Zanzibar Channel, an international commercial seaway, has military potential and implications, especially considering that China will have control of the port for forty years. Does it plan to use it for military purposes?
However, those doubts and suspicions do not stand up to scrutiny.
First, and most importantly, the idea to build a port in Bagamoyo was never imposed from China but started as a local initiative by the Tanzania Ports Authority (TPA). It was then taken over by the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) to facilitate private investment by a Chinese company, China Merchant Holding International Co. Ltd. This was after the Tanzanian government unsuccessfully sought investors, until the Chinese came in and were granted the deal. That this was rushed, as critics allege, is understandable considering that earlier efforts to get a partner were unsuccessful.
The Chinese got the deal after another bidder, the Sharjah Emirate Ruler Sheikh Sultan III bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, who was willing to finance the port backed out as he was unwilling to construct a railway line and tarmacked road in the proposed Economic Development Zones (EDZ).
A Chinese official at the Dar es Salaam embassy who spoke on condition of anonymity says they found the integrated offers interesting and profitable, and in line with their plan to expand the market for Chinese products in Africa. A strategic centre in a peaceful country bordered by eight countries was irresistible, he says.
Tanzania borders Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, with cargo uptake as far as South Sudan, The Comoro islands, Madagascar and the Seychelles. For China, the leading exporter in the world, it is an ideal site.
China is widely involved in extraction industry in central Africa, especially in Zambia, the DR Congo and Angola. Cargo to and from those countries can therefore easily be diverted to Bagamoyo. In 2013 trade between Africa and China reached more than $200 billion.
A senior retired Navy General also dismissed rumours that the port has military importance and can be used as a base. “From all perspectives, the location is unfit since it has shallow waters of 14 meters and thus it cannot berth a submarine,” he says. “It has obstruction in its frontage, the Island of Zanzibar, which is a disadvantage” He says the international seaway that critics claim the Chinese are targeting is not in western Zanzibar but farther to the east of the Island.
The general said only two places are ideal for navy military bases; Rufiji River and Kiswero in Lindi Region where the river waters are deep enough to serve submarine needs and are less corrosive to boats used by the military. Technically, Bagamoyo is not convenient for military operations, he concluded.
Additionally, fears that the project is too expensive tend to focus on the port only, forgetting the larger focus of the development. The port will be constructed alongside an industrial city and the construction of infrastructure to open it to the rest of the country and region.
Transporting supplies in East Africa is higher than in any other region, according to the African Development bank, due to inefficient operations at ports in the region, road checkpoints and border controls. Additionally, shipping to Tanzania is 25 percent higher compared to shipping to the larger and more efficient ports in Southern Africa. A new modern port and upgrades to road and railway infrastructure will therefore not only lower shipping costs, but will also help lower transport costs in the region.
Funding for coverage of this story was provided by the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department at the University of the Witwatersrand.