News | Economic / Social Policy - Globalization - East Africa Opposing Dubai’s Presence in Dar es Salaam

Tanzania recently signed a new trade deal with the Emirate — but not without fierce opposition



Muhidin Shangwe,

The port of Dar es Salaam in September 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

In June 2023, news emerged that the Tanzanian government was entering into an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the Emirate of Dubai to operate a section of the port of Dar es Salaam. The “Intergovernmental Agreement between the United Republic of Tanzania and the Emirate of Dubai Concerning Economic and Social Partnership for the Development and Improving Performance of Sea and Lake Ports in Tanzania” was signed on 3 October 2023 by President Samia Suluhu Hassan and Ahmed Mahboob Musabih, acting on behalf of the Emirate of Dubai. The document was widely shared on social media platforms and was later tabled in the National Assembly, debated, and ratified on 10 June 2023.

Muhidin Shangwe is Lecturer of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

On 22 October 2023, the Tanzanian government and Dubai Ports World (DP World) signed several deals concerning the implementation of IGA. They include the Host Government Agreement (HGA), the lease and operation of berths 4–7, and joint operation of berths 0–3 of the Dar es Salaam port by DP World and Tanzania Port Authority (TPA). The first phase of the project will see DP World invest 250 million US dollars to modernize the port. That investment could go up to 1 billion dollars over the period of 30 years, the length of all the deals signed.

Yet not everyone in Tanzania is excited about the deal. Indeed, a major public debate ensued between supporters and critics of the deal after the news first broke. Various actors came forward to either support or oppose it, but opposition to the project dominated and prolonged the debate.

A Controversial Deal

The criticisms levelled against the IGA mainly centred on issues of governance, duration, sovereignty, and resource nationalism. Critics questioned the opacity around the deal and urged wider public consultation. Also contentious was the fact that the agreement does not specify the duration of investment, which many thus interpreted to be infinite.

Moreover, critics found it problematic that Tanzania would be required to seek the consent of DP World to terminate the agreement or develop other ports in the country. The issue of termination became highly contentious, citing the example of a similar agreement between DP World and Djibouti in which the African country was made to pay a huge price in compensation after it terminated the contract with the Emirati company.

DP World comes at a time when memories of another proposal to build a mega-port in Bagamoyo are still fresh.

On the other hand, seeking DP World’s consent to develop other ports is seen as problematic because Tanzania has long embarked on the expansion and development of Tanga, Mtwara, Kilwa and Mwanza ports. The fate of these projects was thus left unknown, according to critics who also opined that the agreement was a continuation of “foreignization” of resources, which benefits foreign investors at the expense of Tanzanians.

Sustained Opposition

Tanzanians have opposed foreign investment in their resources in the past. However, the opposition to DP World eclipsed other attempts to reject foreign operations of the country’s resources.

It is not just the fact that the project was condemned by a myriad of actors, but rather how such opposition was expressed and practiced. Arguments put forward are not just legal and economic but also emotive in nature. Several individuals, for instance, even brought a case before the High Court of Tanzania, seeking to render the IGA unconstitutional. Despite the fact that the case was dismissed, and the IGA has since been ratified by the National Assembly, the opposition to the deal continues.

Opposition parties have picked up the issue, albeit with varying intensity. Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA) has taken a radical approach in its opposition by sending its top leadership on a nationwide campaign to denounce the IGA. The Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT), on the other hand, took a more constructive approach by offering recommendations for a better deal. Following the signing on 22 October, ACT even boasted that the government took some of their recommendations into account. The party, however, maintained that the contracts signed need to be made public — a demand the government ignored.

The depth of the opposition to the IGA is driven by a widely shared belief that it is a bad deal, rooted in resentment of foreignization and legal objections. The manner in which the IGA came to light added even more scepticism, and pointed to a lack of transparency which then sewed mistrust. The situation was not helped by poor public relations on the side of the government, with senior government officials contradicting each other in public. Moreover, the government crackdown on the critics added weight to the mistrust.

The breadth of actors opposing the project is also remarkable, with support for the deal largely limited to the government, the ruling party Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), and a handful of political “influencers”. Support has also come from certain members of academia, although their voices remain on the margins of the debate.

A solid coalition between opposition parties, civil society organizations, academics, faith-based organizations, and members of the general public thus emerged, the non-partisan nature of which helped to legitimize its reputation. One of the many platforms that criticized the project is Sauti ya Watanzania (“Voice of Tanzanians”), which brings together activists, politicians, lawyers, and even Willibrod Slaa, former Tanzanian ambassador to Sweden. The hashtag #OkoaBandariZetu (“Save our Ports”) captured the spirit of the campaign on social media.

The DP World saga has brought into discussion popular sentiments ranging from federalism, religion, and even racism.

An additional factor boosting the opposition to the deal was the IGA’s timing. The Tanzanian government currently finds itself in an ongoing conflict with the Maasai communities in Ngorongoro, northern Tanzania. The communities are facing forced eviction to make way for trophy hunters and tourists. At the heart of this conflict is the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC), a Safari company based in the UAE which has possessed exclusive hunting rights in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area (LGCA) since 1992. The DP World saga coincided with the escalation of the conflict in Ngorongoro, which had dominated the national agenda for the last year. Riots erupted in June 2022, leaving scores of people injured and one police officer killed.

Moreover, DP World comes at a time when memories of another proposal to build a mega-port in Bagamoyo by the Chinese firm China Holding Merchant (CMH) and the Omani State Government Reserve Fund (SGRF) are still fresh. The proposal faced fierce public backlash led by late President John Magufuli. It appears that for many, inviting DP World to run operations at the port of Dar es Salaam project is a “not again” moment.

The Presidential Factor

Resource nationalism was amplified under the late John Magufuli’s populist administration, resulting in two pieces of legislation: the Natural Wealth and Resources (Permanent Sovereignty) Act and Natural Wealth Resources (Review and Re-negotiation of Unconscionable Terms) Act, both of which were passed in 2017. Many observers hailed the two laws as an effort to maximize Tanzania’s gains from foreign investment. Despite what looks like a big win for Tanzania, the IGA requires that the two legislations be amended to accommodate the DP World project. Indeed, the government went as far as tabling a proposal for the amendment in the National Assembly before withdrawing following persistent public pressure.

Studies indicate that Magufuli’s resource nationalism was the continuation of previous policies dating back to 2010, especially in the extractive sector. However, resource vigilantism went up a notch under his administration.

Magufuli’s populism resonated well with many Tanzanians who saw him as the protector of the country’s riches. Even opposition politician Tundu Lissu, arguably Magufuli’s staunchest critic, stated that he could not fault the late president when it came to protecting the country’s resources. This should be seen in the perspective of political expediency aimed at pitting current President Samia Suluhu Hassan against Magufuli and thus undermining her credibility. Such statements fuel popular sentiments enough to create even more opposition to DP World.

President Hassan, on the other hand, is almost an antithesis of Magufuli in this regard. Her policy of opening up the country restored previously held perceptions that foreign investment amounts to plundering that benefits foreigners at the expense of Tanzanians. Moreover, she is not as popular as her predecessor, coupled with the fact that she assumed office under unprecedented circumstances following the death of a sitting president.

As the first female president in Tanzania, soft-spoken with a calm persona, she lives under the shadow of her predecessor whose style was that of a combative, no-nonsense performer who did not shy away from flexing his toxic masculinity. From the beginning, Hassan had no strong political base even within her own party. Many doubted her by her own admission, and there is no strong indication that has stopped now.

Under these circumstances, while the majority of criticisms against her involvement in the DP World saga are merited, her detractors will see this as a good opportunity to put her in the corner. It is thus not in their interest to see the debate fade, especially because there are two elections coming up: the local governments election in 2024 followed by presidential elections in 2025.

Intersections of Religion, Race, and Federalism

The DP World saga has brought into discussion popular sentiments ranging from federalism, religion, and even racism. According to the constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, ports are a union matter — but the IGA does not include the ports in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island province. Critics have gone as far as suggesting that the DP World deal is a conspiracy by Zanzibaris to undermine the economic development of mainland Tanzania.

This allegation appears to come from Tanganyika nationalists who question the validity of the Union. It is both baseless and ridiculous, of course. However, when uttered by the leader of the biggest opposition party in the country, it becomes a huge talking point. Speaking about the Project on 7 June 2023, Freeman Mbowe, the Chairman of CHADEMA, the main opposition party in the mainland, cautioned that the nature of the deal could lead to perceptions that it is a deliberate attempt by president and her transport minister — both Zanzibaris — to auction off the country’s resources while not doing the same in the in the Islands.

The sustained opposition to DP World agreement is mostly informed by a strong conviction among critics that it is a bad deal, legally and economically.

President Hassan has been compelled to push back, denouncing such perceptions and insisting that she is committed to acting in the best interests of the country. Zanzibari nationalists have also taken up the issue, linking such allegations to the anti-Zanzibar sentiments they believe to be widespread among the mainlanders. This has reinforced the perception that the president is being criticized only because she is a Zanzibari.

Such narratives have fanned parochial sentiments and kept the debate going while derailing the actual discussion about pertinent issues in the DP World project. Speaking at a rally, Ismail Jussa, a prominent opposition figure in Zanzibar, asserted that he cared less about the DP World port deal because it is essentially a Tanganyikan problem and has nothing to do with Zanzibaris.

President Hassan’s economic diplomacy has seen her government take measures to intensify and diversify foreign relations. This has opened windows of opportunity for, among others, the Gulf States. The Tanzanian president has made state visits to Oman, the UAE, and Qatar, signing numerous trade agreements. The UAE is a relatively new player in Tanzania, yet became Tanzania’s second-largest source of imports and first destination of exports in 2022.

The growing presence of the Gulf States has raised eyebrows and reignited the debate on resource nationalism. In doing so, racialized and religious sentiments against Arabs have sometimes been invoked a desperate attempt to forge resistance.

The interference of religious bodies has underscored this point. On 18 August 2023, the Catholic Church, through its Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), issued a statement opposing the IGA and urging the government to heed people’s concerns. The statement must have given DP World critics momentum, but it also led to questions as to whether the Church was overreaching.

The Catholic Church instructed the statement be read in all churches across the country on the Sunday service on 20 August 2023. On the same day, former president Jakaya Kikwete warned against mixing religion and politics, fuelling even more religious sentiments, which had existed even before the statement by TEC. The Evangelical Lutheran Church also weighed in on the matter in a less contradictory way, as did the Muslim Council of Tanzania.

Will the Opposition Continue?

The sustained opposition to DP World agreement is mostly informed by a strong conviction among critics that it is a bad deal, legally and economically. Almost all the actors identify themselves with this reason because it is legitimate.

However, that alone does not fully explain the prolonged debate as well as the opposition on display. Indeed, the multitude of actors points to the fact that multiple interests are being negotiated, if not advanced. They range from pure political economy, political expediency, parochialism among Tanganyika and Zanzibari nationalists, to religious and racial sentimentalism in both sets of supporters and critics. It is for this particular reason that the opposition to the deal does not suggest that there will be a mass movement against the “foreignization” of resources.

Moreover, the persistent opposition that was displayed in the early periods of this saga is an indication of the people’s hope that the government would listen and walk away from the deal. Those who were hopeful have since been dealt two major blows: the ratification of the IGA, and the 22 October 2023 signing of deals between the government and DP World. It will be interesting to see if critics still have the stamina to oppose the deal going forward.