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Amnesty, rights groups call on Tanzania to release critics of UAE ports deal

August 15, 2023 at 11:12 pm

Samia Suluhu Hassan takes oath as Tanzania’s president, making the history as becoming the first female leader of the East African country, in Dodoma, Tanzania on March 19, 2021 [Presidency of Tanzania – Anadolu Agency]

Human rights groups and campaigners have urged Tanzania to release critics of the government’s deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to manage the country’s ports, amid increasing criticism over Abu Dhabi’s significant influence in East Africa.

Last October, Tanzanian President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, signed a deal to allow the Dubai-run logistics company, DP World, to manage all the ports in Tanzania in consultation with its government, with that agreement having been ratified by Parliament in June.

That deal has not been without critics, however, and the government has not taken kindly to them. Over the weekend, Tanzanian authorities arrested three of those critics – including former parliamentarian and diplomat, Willibrod Slaa – who spoke out publicly against the ports deal.

According to Amnesty International, which cited the detained critics’ defence lawyers, they are likely to face treason charges for their public discontent, making them liable for the death penalty. 

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In a statement by the group’s east and southern Africa director, Tigere Chagutah, he emphasised the need for the Tanzanian government to “stop arbitrarily detaining activists simply for peacefully expressing their views and immediately and unconditionally release these activists”. Chagutah added that the “crackdown of critics of the UAE port deal reveals their growing intolerance to dissent”.

Other groups, including the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, have also condemned the authorities’ harsh crackdown on criticism of the deal, expressing in a joint statement that “We believe the human rights defenders have the right to offer opinions about anything in our country, including … the port agreement”. They stressed that critics “should not face any intimidation or be arrested for expressing their freedom of speech.”

A main argument against the deal is that it poses a threat to Tanzanian sovereignty and security, as it gives DP World exclusive rights for a period of 12 months to negotiate with the government on how best to manage the country’s 80 ports.

The government, however, insists that the agreement will overwhelmingly benefit the country and its ports by improving efficiency, cutting costs and increasing revenues, with Transport Minister, Makame Mbarawa, telling Parliament in June that the investment by DP World will improve performance by allowing more ships to dock. “The cost of transit cargo will also drop by almost half,” he said.