Zanzibar’s Resource Exploration: Legal and Historical Complexities within Tanzania’s Union Government

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After Zanzibar’s Minister for Blue Economy and Fisheries announced that his government would embark upon the exploration and extraction of natural gas and oil within the boundaries of Zanzibar, issues of concern to the unity of the Republic of Tanzania arose. That alone pricked my mind even to raise a question: does Zanzibar own a sea, and if it does, where are the boundaries, and why did the constitution earmark gas and oil as union matters? This discourse will walk you through legal and historical facts behind departures from those constitutional imperatives.

The union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, an archipelago of islands, gave birth to the Tanzania Republic. It is said Tanzania is a unitary government, but to a point. Canada is a federal government, but Zanzibar has more powers than, let’s say, Quebec province. So, whether or not a unitary government exists is a matter of interpretation.

A reading of the Zanzibar constitution (1984) shows that Zanzibar’s identity was preserved. The constitution recognizes Zanzibar’s ownership of the sea before the union government was constituted. The union constitution, too, recognizes Zanzibar’s authority upon internal matters. However, natural gas and oils were assimilated as union matters in 1968.

Petroleum issues in the Mainland are dealt with under Chapter 392 (The Petroleum Conservation Act, Cap 392) and (The Tanzania Petroleum Exploration and Production Act, Cap 17). Potential disputes on the distribution of how to divide the spoils from natural gas and oils led to the appointment of an independent arbitrator from UK AUPEC.

Following his advice, new legislation was made: the Zanzibar Petroleum Act of 2015 and the Exploration and Extraction of Natural Gas of 2016. Chapter 392 was also reviewed to permit Zanzibar to manage natural gas and Petroleum products in her backyard. However, one question remained unanswered in all these legislative efforts: where was a map that showed the Zanzibar Sea? I have seen none to date, albeit that is not proof of its non-existence!

READ RELATED: Zanzibar’s Energy Future: Oil as a Catalyst for Development.

Zanzibar Channel

Zanzibar Channel encompasses all the waters between Mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar, but who owns this sea is not very clear. Zanzibar opposition politicians have been claiming that the map of Zanzibar boundaries was lodged at the UN by the Oman Sultan, intoning that was the indisputable evidence the whole Channel belongs to them, and mainlanders are squatters.

As I was writing this piece, I hadn’t seen that map, and it also raised vital questions about who had legitimate powers to mark international boundaries. Can the name of the waters qualify for ownership, or is there another basis to determine ownership? Can Malawi, for instance, say Lake Malawi is hers based on associations with nomenclature or how colonial powers drew the borders?

International Law on Sea Boundaries

According to international law, each coastal State may claim a territorial sea that extends seaward up to 12 nautical miles (nm) or 22.224 kilometres from its baselines. The coastal State exercises sovereignty over its territorial sea, the airspace above it, and the seabed and subsoil beneath it. The shortest distance (air line) between Zanzibar and Bagamoyo is 28.41 mi (45.72 km). Somewhere between Saadani and Bagamoyo, the shortest distance from map calculations is less than 30 Km.

Under international law, Mainland Tanzania has genuine claims to the Zanzibar Channel. At least two-thirds of the Zanzibar Channel belongs to Mainland Tanzania, leaving Zanzibar with only one-third of those waters.

Legal Implications of Zanzibar Laws on Natural Gas and Petroleum Products

The legal reforms aligned with the Zanzibar constitution, which proclaimed her a country. There are many interpretations of what it means for Zanzibar to be a country within a unitary government. Had we been a federation, that claim would have been propelled, but under unitary government, that claim would have been and still is hollow.

Since Zanzibar keeps on asserting her identity and self-determination, I can conclude that while we may be a unitary government in dè-jure, we are a de facto federation. The whole concept of the federation was rejected because of the creation of a Tanganyika government that would weaken the union.

After the re-establishment of the Russian state, the Soviet Union collapsed, and efforts to patch up a commonwealth petered off and were later abandoned. These are genuine fears which should not be taken for granted.

Zanzibar must seek the benevolence of the union government to exercise gas and fuel exploratory and extraction rights. The real reason is the lack of clarity on border demarcations. ACT Wazalendo politicians from Pemba often claim without providing evidence that they know the borders of the sea belonging to Zanzibar, but once put to task, they say the UN has them!

The UN has articles on the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, but the boundaries, if any, should be with us before them.

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Where incurring gas and fossil production costs may not strain the union fabric, revenue sharing will deepen the cracks. At the moment, Zanzibar gets a portion of the Union revenue. Still, as more revenue is generated from gas and fossil fuels by the Zanzibar government, the logic of funding their government will grow weaker and weaker.

The dilemma will be why they should be cushioned with goodies while they have their separate major sources of income generation. Another mind-boggling matter will be whether whatever Zanzibar gets remains the same portion of the total revenue the union government generates.

If Zanzibar gets less, there will be pressure to adjust accordingly, but if she is picking up more, expect Zanzibar to resist parting with anything. Such frictions were what led the founders of this nation to place gas and fossils under the union umbrella, but Zanzibar’s promulgation of “Zanzibar ni nchi:” has changed the dynamics and tone of engagement between the two members of the union.

Environmental Concerns

EIAs are not the Holy Grail; they have weaknesses. Sometimes, more than often, human bias trickles into decisions. Where there is political pressure to develop a project, EIA assessors are under duress to approve controversial projects.

Natural gas extraction is the least to worry about staining the earth. However, future geological disturbances due to the emptiness created by draining natural gas or fossils are a major concern.

Zanzibar has been rumoured to be threatened by rising sea levels, and futurists, if taken seriously, worry about what effects will impact Zanzibar when earthquakes and rising waters have mightily battered her, challenging the perpetual existence of Zanzibar. We may not have all the answers today, but stretching our minds and trying to understand them is beneficial to all of us rather than burying our heads in the sand and praying for the best.

The environmental issues concerning fossil extraction really depend on the type of technology that will be used. If it is fracking technology, the output of the oil wells will be optimal, posing minimal environmental concerns. But we are not there yet, so this debate will do well to wait until that time knocks on the door patiently.

In conclusion, we can say that as Zanzibar continues to aspire to be an independent nation, conflicts over access, utilisation, and equitable distribution of resources will continue to balloon. However, if Zanzibar appreciates the benefits of being in the union government, most of the disadvantages will spiral away. Still, power mongers in Pemba will relish being assertive to squeeze more on both sides of the equation, which is unrealistic and unfortunate.

On one leg, they want security and freedoms at their disposal to continue. Still, another leg is also determined to undermine the unitary government, risking enjoying the goodies that the unitary government brings. Over time, Zanzibar will have to decide whether risking chaos and a failed state is worth the effort to seek and secure the quixotic quests of “Zanzibar ni nchi”!

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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