Two Roads, not One

Two Roads, not One

A new proposal for the contentious Serengeti highway may have emerged from last week’s elections in Tanzania. It looks promising to me. In perfectly wonderful political language, the Arusha rumor mill calls it “The Compromise.”

Two highways would be built instead of one. The first and biggest would follow the alternate southern route. The second would follow the original route from Arusha but end just outside the east side of the park.

The fact that the second road would still encroach important wildlife areas in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area only enhances its chances of success. Environmentalists have played their cards almost exclusively on the wildebeest migration issue, and if the road stops before entering the Serengeti, this issue becomes moot.

Two roads would cost a lot more, of course, than one. But “The Compromise” might garner western donor assistance, which seems impossible if the road cuts through the Serengeti.

It would also satisfy a major argument used by proponents of the current road, that Maasai communities to the east of the Serengeti are in dire need of development impossible without a good road into their area.

The buzz began circulating in Arusha Wednesday morning after two days and nights of celebrations for Godbless Lema, Arusha’s new 32-year old Member of Parliament. Lema was the successful candidate of the new major opposition party, Chadema.

He had campaigned against building the road. His opponent, incumbent ruling party (CCM) Batilda Burian was the Minister of State in the Vice-President’s Office responsible for environmental affairs.

Lema just didn’t oust a ruling party incumbent. He thumped one of the country’s important environmental ministers, winning 58% to 39%!

Arusha has always been solidly against the road. During the heated campaign Dr. Burian tried unsuccessfully to distance herself from her party’s insistence that the road be built without actually denouncing it, a balancing act that tumbled.

She denied Lema’s charge that she was the “architect” of the highway plan, insisting (remarkably) that she had nothing to do with it.

But Lema countered, ”Ms Batilda Buriani … is the state minister in charge of environment and should have advised the government against the road project…”

Now that the battle is over, tempers are cooling. Lema is unlikely to get anywhere as an opposition MP without compromise with the ruling party that still holds sway over more than two-thirds of parliament.

The road is supposed to begin in Arusha with Arusha contractors. There’s a lot of fluff and not much power in being a single MP in Tanzania, but what power exists usually resides in dispensing the pork. Many of Arusha’s young businessmen – Lema’s peers – are in the tourist industry. But many are in construction. It would be just as hard for him to fall in line with the ruling party as to completely oppose the ruling party’s position.

Alas “The Compromise.”

The current proposed northern route would connect the urban centers of Arusha and Mwanza with a looped road that would transect the northern portion of the Serengeti National Park about 40 km south of the Kenyan border.

An amazing array of scientific, professional and business organizations has lined up squarely against the plan, arguing that it would seriously impact the great wildebeest migration.

Disrupting the migration is THE issue outside of Tanzania, but in Arusha the main concern is that business would seriously suffer from the subsequent impact on tourism. Most of Tanzania’s tourism industry is located in Arusha.

But from the getgo the current and newly re-elected President Jakaya Kikwete has steadfastly insisted the road would be built. Even as foreign donors began to suggest they would have nothing to do with the road, Kikwete claimed that Tanzanians will fund the road themselves without foreign assistance.

Most of us know that’s absurd. We think what Kikwete really means is that the Chinese would do it for him.

But the Chinese have been stung recently by a series of environmental embarrassments, most notably Chinese workers arrested and deported for poaching ivory. They may not be in such an enthusiastic mood to find reasons for bringing their anti-animal reputation up anew.

Alas, “The Compromise.”

Hard to say if the rumor will gain traction, but it seems to make imminent sense to me. Instead of a half billion dollars, it might cost $650 million, and particularly if the Chinese are involved maybe even less. The campaigns against the road must have reached the desks of western aid dispensers. This seems like a compromise made in heaven.

And, after all, that’s what the Serengeti is.