A map of Tanzania in Chinese.

A map of Tanzania in Chinese.

Following the signing of an agreement between the Tanzanian energy company TANESCO and China Power Investment corporation (CPI) to build a gas-fired power plant, Tanzania’s Minister for Energy and Minerals announced that Tanzania planned to export electricity by 2015.

The importance of increasing Tanzania’s capacity to produce electricity is difficult to overstate. The Tanzanian Private Sector Foundation, which compiles an annual report concerning barriers to investment in the country, reports that inadequate and unreliable power sources has been the most frequently cited obstacle to investment for the past four years.

The erratic supply of electricity supplied by TANESCO, a parastatal organization, is not an issue for the majority of Tanzanians, however, as the majority of Tanzanians are not connected to the outdated national-grid. In fact, the World Bank has reported that only 14 percent of Tanzanians had access to electricity in 2010.

While the construction of the $300-million electrical plant, to be powered by recently discovered reserves of natural gas, could potentially be a positive development, the announcement that Tanzania intends to export electricity within two years demonstrates that the construction of this facility is far from a nation-building, development-oriented undertaking. Tanzania’s plans to export electricity while the vast majority of its population lacks access to power illustrates some of the most perplexing and damning characteristics of the international economic system.

Given the impossibility of extending electricity to the 86 percent of Tanzanians without access within the next two years, it is obvious that the Tanzanian government has prioritized an export-oriented economy over nation building. The intricate calculus that informs such a policy calls into question the state of Tanzanian domestic politics and sheds light on the nature of Chinese engagement in the region.

Prior to the agreement between TANESCO and CPI, the Tanzanian government had announced plans to use the natural gas reserves in Mtwara to provide electricity for domestic industrial, commercial, and household use. This announcement was met with uncharacteristically violent protests, eventually leading to the arrest of 90 people. The protests stemmed from the community’s fear that the majority of the benefits from the natural gas reserves would accrue to Dar es Salaam instead of to Mtwara. In response to the protests, former president Benjamin Mkapa cautioned the residents against protesting, arguing that instability could scare off foreign investors.

Chinese involvement with TANESCO likely involved contingencies that prompted the government to shift its priorities away from domestic use to exporting electricity. Such agreements strongly suggest that Chinese involvement with African governments is primarily motivated by the country’s need for natural resources. While China’s eagerness to capitalize upon the significant natural gas reserves found in Tanzania makes sense, Tanzanian willingness to export electricity when the lack of a reliable power source has been recognized as a major constraint on its industrial and human development is troubling.

There are those who would argue that exporting natural gas is the economically logical choice, given the high prices and demand provided by the international market. However, given that TANESCO is a parastatal organization, it has a vested interest in pursuing domestic development projects rather than a pure profit-motive. Others would argue that the planned export of electricity reflects Chinese influence in the region and is illustrative of the future of Sino-African relations. Postulations as to government ineptitude and the international balance of power aside, Tanzania’s decision to export electricity in lieu of focusing on domestic development efforts is illustrative of a broader trend throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in which citizens are underserved by their governments.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.