29 Aug 2011

The Joy of Six: Highlights from Wikileaks' release of Tz cables

Last week's release by Wikileaks of the US Diplomatic Cables on Tanzania was not the "smoking gun" on the corruption scandals to have struck Tanzania in the last 5 years that some people were hoping for. But nor does it make for entirely comfortable reading for those in government who are subject to some unusually undiplomatic criticisms from the US diplomats.

There are around 500 cables with the tag "Tz" now publicly available, a number that means a review can either be quick or thorough, but not both. Quick is all I have time for, I'm afraid, aided by various Twitterers and Jamii Forums in the process. So if you want to dig deeper, you'll have to do it yourself.

Overall, the cables don't reveal a US Embassy with privileged access to information on Tanzanian governance. Their sources often seem to be the same newspaper reports that the rest of us can read. And even where a conversation with high level officials is reported, there doesn't seem to be much "new" information here that wasn't previously in the public domain (with some exceptions). But as some of the examples below demonstrate, it's the commentary that is uncomfortable.

Here are some highlights, six* to be precise:

First up, two cables written in the aftermath of the suspension of Tanzanian newspapers (MwanaHalisi in October 2008 and Kulikoni in February 2010) shed light on the US Embassy's stance on press freedom and highlight again Tanzania's problematic media law. Of particular note was Ambassador Lenhardt's conclusion that Minister Mkuchika's "defense of his own actions is entirely self-serving, since the current Act gives him full latitude not only to decide whether published material is "seditious," but also to determine appropriate sanctions, which could stop far short of suspension".

Second, the perhaps surprising use by US diplomats in Tanzania of face-time with senior government officials to discuss such matters as "distracted driving". (Also noted by SwahiliStreet)

Third, unusual insights into inter-government lobbying on public procurement, specifically in the case of the purchase and/or leasing of new planes by Air Tanzania (ATC). The US embassy pressed hard to protect the US company Boeing against what they saw as suspicious pro-Airbus procurement practices: "the Embassy retains a troubling concern that ATC and the GOT may have made the decision to go with Airbus even before the process began in March 2007".

Fourth, the news that in common with many, the US Embassy's initial optimism at the election of President Kikwete (and at his stance on corruption) turned later to concerns. Between January 2006 and ...., "we are sanguine that a new corner is being turned" became, by October 2008 "We too have lamented the lack of discipline and the apparent lack of strategic thinking at State House. We have also witnessed the tendency to put off difficult decisions, especially on Zanzibar and corruption. State House is chaotic and faction-ridden".

Fifth, a case of Tanzania apparently protecting two sons of a Tanzanian diplomat at the United Nations in New York against prosecution by refusing to waive the diplomatic immunity they enjoy by being a diplomat's sons. Of course we only have one side of the story and innocence must be the assumption, but the evidence sounds strong and the US authorities seem pretty sure of their case. Any in any case, the Tanzanian mission to the UN declined the opportunity for the boys to defend themselves in court, effectively arguing that they were "immune" rather than arguing that they were "innocent".

And finally, a cable about cables, noting the arrival of the undersea fibre-optic cable Seacom, and noting the cable's "stifled potential". A paragraph here is worth quoting at length:
"With proper management, this cable could be transformative for Tanzania across the development landscape.  However, current trends point toward near-monopolistic control of this critical resource by telecoms parastatal TTCL, likely choking off the potential benefit of the cable (and others to follow).  Despite years of notice, GOT preparations - both regulatory and for infrastructure - have been inadequate.  In addition to proper regulation, significant investments in data infrastructure are needed at a national level before the benefits of the cable can be fully realized, both for private investors and the Tanzanian people.  The current situation points to an increasing divide between Dar es Salaam and the rest of the country and is a further example of Tanzania lagging behind its neighbors in planning for economic development."

* Hence this post's title - with apologies to the Guardian sports department