(eTN) - While in Canada for an official state visit, Tanzania President Kikwete found himself in a tight spot, when challenged by the media over the hugely controversial Serengeti highway plans that his government had floated in 2010.
The road would cut the migration route of the wildebeest towards the Kenyan Masai Mara, where his government has steadfastly refused to open the Bologonja border post, ostensibly to âkeep the Kenyans out of the Serengeti.â Some weeks ago, conservationists blamed Tanzanian park officials to have deliberately created fires in the Serengeti to prevent the large herds from completing their annual migration to the Kenyan Masai Mara, a claim swiftly denied by SENAPA and TANAPA officials, though the fires were in itself not disputed, only the interpretation. With the case in court at the East African Court of Justice, where the Tanzanian government has failed to stop the case on a variety of grounds, the road plans have dented Tanzania's credibility as a conservation nation, and added equally controversial projects on Lake Natron, the Coelacanth marine national park near Tanga. and uranium mining and a huge dam project in the Selous are only increasing the woes.
President Kikwete's explanations sounded as weak as mitigating pleas normally do, especially as the alternate Southern route would reach 4 times as many people and would be financed by both the World Bank and the German government, offers, however, not accepted by the Tanzanian government up til now.
Critics claim that Kikwete was under pressure by contributors to his last campaign to deliver on promises allegedly made, connecting the Lake Natron flats and the mining concessions between the Serengeti and Lake Victoria to a major paved road, so that new mines could be opened and a soda ash factory established within the breeding grounds of the East African lesser flamingos.
To make matters worse, one of his self-styled mouth pieces, a Mr. Edward Porokwa, gave away the game when he openly spoke out against Kenyan cattle buyers who are allegedly cheating Tanzanian livestock sellers with artificially low prices for lack of alternate roads. Such talk is likely to negate President Kikwete's goodwill visit three weeks ago to Kenya's capital Nairobi, where he was attempting to court public opinion and dispel constant murmurs that Tanzania's attitude to her neighbors was far from friendly â allegations supported by regular non-tariff barriers being slapped on Kenyan traders and businesses.
Comparisons by Porokwa with other highways crossing national parks were also considered a dismal failure in justifying the highway across the Serengeti, as in Mikumi National Park where the loss of game through road kills continues to be high and the recent experience with a new road in Kenya between Emali and Kimana also showed a sharp increase of game being run over by trucks, now that the road is paved.
The objections of the conservation fraternity remain, and the Tanzanian government has done little to absorb the wave of global opposition and seriously consider the Southern route alternative and President Kikwete's performance was also all but a failure to convince the world that this particular route was needed for anything else but to please powerful economic interest groups at the expense of tourism and conservation.