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Last Updated: 02/02/2011
Emerging Socio-Economic and Political Conflicts in Tanzania
William John

Tanzania is known as a paradise of peace in the troubled continent of Africa. The country neither experienced civil wars, religious conflicts, ethnicity nor coups since independence (Hirschler, 2004; Rubanza, 2001). In effect, Tanzania facilitated liberation of fellow African countries (for example, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe) from colonial rule. Similarly, the country resolved conflicts in fellow African countries by stimulating mediation, negotiation and reconciliation among warring parties. For example, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere[1] was a chief mediator to the Burundi conflict (Lupa, 2002). However, the occurrence of violent conflicts in recent years challenge the peaceful atmosphere enjoyed by Tanzania since independence. For example, on 27th October, 2008 fighting involving peasants and farmers of Mabwegere village, Kilosa District, Morogoro Region erupted. About eight people were killed and more than 832 villagers took refuge in neighboring villages. A similar type of conflict broke in Kilosa district, Morogoro in 2000 and more than 15 people were killed (LEAT, LEAT, LRRRI, 2008).

In addition, the United States of America (USA) embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed at the same time by Al-Qaeda in 1998, and about 213 people lost their lives (Dagne, 2002; Shine, 2003). On 14th December, 2008, a group of local people (approximated to 3,000 to 4,000) raided Barrick North Mara Gold Mine at North Mara, Mara Region. The intruders threw stones at the security guards and overpowered them. In the course of confrontation one person among the intruders died and properties worth USD 15 million were destroyed (Saunders, 2008). According to local communities of North Mara, one villager dies or gets injured every day as a result of confrontation with police officers and Barrick’s security guards (John, 2010). In 1996, the Tanzania’s government and Sutton Resources (a Canadian Mining Company) forcefully evicted small scale miners and peasants from Bulyanhulu. In the course of eviction, it was alleged that about 54 small scale miners were buried alive when the bulldozers filled in the pits of small scale miners (John, 2010; Lange, 2008; Wanzala, 2007; LEAT, 2003). In effect, this paper explores and explains the reasons for the emergence of violent conflicts in Tanzania in recent years. The paper is guided by the hypothesis that “negative peace, environmental degradation, war in neighboring countries, poor land policies, forced imposition of external policies and religion and identity” are key driving factors for the emergence of violent conflicts in Tanzania.

Negative Peace

When I got a Scholarship to pursue a Masters Degree course in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace, Costa Rica, one of my colleagues at the University of Dar es Salaam jokingly made the following assertion: “Tanzania is a very peaceful country, what do you think will be the use of your Masters Degree course in Peace and Conflict Studies? May be you should first do a course on conflict entrepreneurship in order to create conflicts, and then you can pursue a course in Peace and Conflict Studies in order to resolve these conflicts.”[2] This assertion was made jokingly, but appears to represent the perception of many Tanzanians about the meaning of peace and conflict. The misconception of the notion of peace and conflict by the Tanzanian government and Tanzanians in general has made the government to put less emphasis in peace education, neither in the secondary schools, community outreach nor in the higher learning institutions. Peace in eyes of many Tanzanians implies absence of direct violence (war) (Ramsbotham, 2006). The University of Dar es Salaam,[3] the largest and oldest University in Tanzania, offers only four separate courses (two at undergraduate level and two at postgraduate levels) in Peace and Security Studies. Surprisingly, the content of these courses do not address directly the local conflicts; instead they largely address sub-regional, regional and global conflicts. Likewise, these are optional course; as a result they end up attracting a very small number of students (UDSM, 2010a; UDSM, 2010b).

Even though the Mwalimu Nyerere foundation was established in June 1996 as a center for promoting peace and security in Tanzania and Africa in general, it has never put much emphasis in resolving Tanzania’s conflicts; instead the focus has been in neighboring countries, especially Burundi[4] (Lupa, 2002; Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, 2010). As such, this explains the extent to which the notion of “negative peace” has been built in the minds of Tanzanians.

War in the neighboring Countries, Porous Boundaries and Corruption

According to Victoria Fontan[5] (2010) “what takes places in one end of the world, will always have impact in the other side of the world”. Tanzania is surrounded by countries in violent conflicts (for instance, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo). In effect, there is a high possibility of conflicts in neighboring countries to transcend into Tanzania. East Africa and the Horn of Africa[6] have been clearly identified by the United States of America as areas most threatened by indigenous and international terrorism because of the prevalence of wars for several decades. Internal and external terrorists are most likely to capitalize in the existing conflicts to penetrate their interests. Coupled with the prevalence of wars in neighboring countries, Tanzania’s borders, especially in the Indian Ocean are very loose and poorly patrolled. Besides, poverty striking many Tanzanians and corruption of security officers in the boarders allow penetration of weapons, and hence terrorists acts in Tanzania and East in general. The bombing of the United States embassies in Tanzania and Kenya by Al-Qaeda in 1998 is a live example (Shine, 2003; Rosand, 2008). In my view, any human behavior, for example violence, does not occur in the vacuum, but there are always forces behind. Poverty threatens people’s basic human needs and creates a sense relative deprivation. Poor people are most likely to involve into violent acts, for example, terrorist acts, looting, corruption, robbery and insurgence. Essentially, peace in Tanzania and Africa in general will remain to be a dream if there is no strong political will to get rid of poverty.

Identity, Religion and emergence of violent conflicts in Tanzania

Individuals tend to identify themselves on the basis of their common history, culture and language. Human identities are not in themselves the cause of conflicts and wars, but politicians, especially in Africa tend to manipulate and politicize these identities in order to secure power (Jeong, 2000). The historical divide created by slavery and slave trade and colonialism have polarized the relation between Pemba and Unguja islands in Zanzibar, Tanzania. British colonial government capitalized the division created by slavery and slave trade by ruling Zanzibar through the Arabs (land owners) (Talbot, 2000). After the adoption of multiparty democracy in Tanzania in 1992, identities in Zanzibar were transcended in the struggle for power. For instance, Unguja supported the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), while Pemba turned out to support the major opposition party, Civil United Front (CUF). All the elections held in 1995, 2000 and 2005 were followed by violent conflicts with CUF rejecting the electoral results, and therefore declining to recognize the government. In 2001, January, identity polarization in Zanzibar claimed lives of more than 30 followers of CUF who demonstrated to oppose the 2000 electoral results. CUF demonstrators clashed with the government security officers (Mpangala and Lwehabura, 2006; Mwadini, 2010).

Another form of identity, which in recent years appears to paralyze social cohesion in Tanzania is religion[7]. Country’s socio-economic problems have been given religious expressions, for example, Moslems blaming the government for favoring Christians and for refusing to incorporate the “Kadhi Courts” (Moslem courts) into the government machinery. On 12th February, 1998 Moslems of the Mwembechai Mosque in Dar es Salaam waged a violent riot, which involved vandalizing properties (for example cars and crates of beer) and beating up people. The police officers forcefully intervened to stop the riot. About 2 people were shot dead and other 20 were severely injured (Rubanza, 2001). I think the major reason for the polarization of religious identities in Tanzania is the politicians’ attempts to use religion as their entry point in the surge to take power.

Environmental degradation and population explosion

The environment supports human life by providing the basic human needs, for example, food, shelter, clothes and love. However, human activities such as industrialization, agriculture, mining and finishing have ended up producing global warming, ozone layers depletion, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, soil erosion and water, air and land pollution (Jeong, 2000). Environmental degradation produced by human activities has reduced the ability of nature to provide the human basic needs. As result, human beings are fighting over the remaining scare resources in order to meet their basic human needs. As for Tanzania, environmental pollution, especially water and land pollution by Barrick Gold Corporation at North Mara has created tension between the mining company and the local communities. According to the local communities, more than 20 people and 1000 animals have died as a result of the mine-induced water and land pollution. Local people, especially young men continually invade the mine in order to steal gold rocks to meet their basic needs, which have been threatened by Barrick`s environmental pollution (John, 2010; Mwanahalisi, 2010).

Coupled with environmental degradation, Tanzania also faces a problem of population explosion. In the 21st century, population in Tanzania is predicted to double every 20 years in rural areas and every 10 years in urban years. Population explosion put pressure in the limited resources, for instance, land and water; hence causing conflicts. Similarly, population explosion sparks migration in areas deemed to be productive. For instance, massive migration of people in the Pangani River Basin has generated conflicts between the people and the conservationists (Mbonile, 2006). Large cities in Tanzania, especially Dar es Salaam are receiving large number migrants of youths from the rural areas. This has put stress in the existing infrastructures, for instance, hospitals and housing. As a result, Dar es Salaam is currently experiencing frequent violent acts like theft and robbery (Mmuya, 2000).

Unclear Land Policies

The Tanzania land tenure system has its origin in the German colonial rule (1885-1919) and later British colonial rule (1919-1961). The colonial government placed all land in the hands of the state leaving the local people with no right to land ownership (Minde 2006; Shivji 2009). After independence in 1961, no fundamental changes in land laws were made save for the replacement of the Governor by the President. Mwalimu Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania declared all land in Tanzania as a free gift from God; in this case, the State continued exercising control over land resources (Lange 2008). The Land Act (1998) gives power to the state to order the people to vacate the land they are occupying in case it is deemed that land is needed for national interest, for example, mining. Once evicted, local people are entitled to compensation for the investment they have made on the land (for example, crops and houses) and not the land itself and minerals. This situation has made many people, especially those whose land is endowed by minerals to remain poor, since they are always evicted with very low or no compensation (Wanzala, 2007; John, 2010). Similarly, since the land tenure system remains unclear, there are always conflicts between peasants and nomads who keep on moving from one place to another in search for pastures and water. The recurrent violent conflicts between pastoralists and peasants in Kilosa District, Morogoro Region result from unclear land policy in Tanzania. Violent conflicts between peasants and pastoralists in Kilosa District in 2000 and 2008 claimed lives of about 23 people and many took refugees in neighboring villages (LHRC, LEAT and, LRRRI, 2008).

Imposition of External policies (Planners versus Searchers)

In the mid-1980s, Tanzania and other third world countries were required by the donor countries and the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to change their fiscal and monetary policies in order to permit inflow of foreign capital. Tanzania was required to cut down expenditure (cost sharing) in social services like education and health. The reaction of local people to the externally imposed policies has sparked violent conflicts. For example, nearly in every semester for the past six years, students from the University of Dar es Salaam have rioted opposing the cost sharing policy (East African Tube (2009). Likewise, the externally imposed policies have generated conflicts between local people and investors and between local people and the government. For example, on 2nd July, 2009, Tanzania`s armed police officers forcefully demolished eight villages of the Masai communities in Loliondo, Manyara Region in order give way for a hunting block of an investor from Dubai. Villagers’ crops and houses were burnt; as a result about 3000 villagers were rendered homeless (Intercontinental Cry, 2009). Likewise, in 1996, the Tanzania`s government and Sutton Resources, a Canadian Mining Company, forcefully evicted small scale miners from the Bulyanhulu Gold Mine, Kahama District, Shinyanga Region. In the course of eviction, about 54 small scale miners were allegedly buried alive. However, the government and Sutton resources declined these allegations (LEAT, 2003; Wanzala, 2007; Lange, 2008; John, 2010). Based on the Tanzania’s context, it appears that the blue-print plans imposed from the North have partly generated violent conflicts than resolving the local problems, for example, poverty.


This paper sought to explore and explain the factors behind the emergence of violent conflicts in Tanzania in recent years. The paper has uncovered evidence that negative peace, unclear land policies, imposition of foreign policies, environmental degradation and population explosion, identity, religion and wars in neighboring countries like Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo are largely responsible for the escalation of violent conflicts in Tanzania. Environmental degradation coupled with population explosion have reduced the ability of nature to provide basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothes and love. This has generated frustration and relative deprivation; hence the desire of people to use force in order to meet their basic needs. Bad enough, a frustrated society of Tanzania is surrounded by countries prone of conflicts, for example, Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This has allowed penetration of weapons and terrorist groups in Tanzania and East Africa in general. Conflicts occur as a result of combination of factors. As a result of this complexity, Tanzania needs to resort to multiple approaches in order to bring peace. For instance, while attempting to eradicate `poverty and promote and protect the environment, there should also be efforts to restore peace in neighboring countries. Likewise, the government should resolve the inconsistencies in the existing policies (for instance, cost sharing, foreign direct investment and land policies) in order to avoid the recurrent violent conflicts.


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[1] Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere was the first president of Tanzania (1961-1984). He worked as the chief mediator to the Burundi conflict before his death in 1999.

[2] This assertion was made by one of my colleagues at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in June, 2010.

[3] Dar es Salaam (a word of Arabic origin) means “the house of peace. It is the major commercial city of Tanzania. The University of Dar es Salaam was named after Dar es Salaam since it is found in Dar es Salaam.

[4] The Mwalimu Nyerere foundation was named after Mwalimu Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, to honor his legacy on peace and security. The foundation demonstrated success in sparking mediation of the civil war in Burundi.

[5] Adopted from the Lecture delivered by Dr.Victoria Fontan on 1st September, 2010 at the University for Peace, Costa Rica.

[6] East Africa and Horn of Africa are composed of the following countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.

[7] Tanzania is composed of two main religious factions: Moslems whose population is estimated to be 25 to 35 percent and the rest is largely Christians (Rubanza, 2001).

William John is an MA candidate at the University for Peace.