Helium Discovery in Tanzania -What will Magufuli Now Do?


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Hongera Tanzania! Divine providence has smiled on thee. “Mungu amekumbuka maombi yako”. The eyes of the entire world are on thee for you “Tanzania” are is sitting on 54.2 billion metric cubic feet of helium gas in Lake Rukwa, with possibilities of more reserves as exploration of the natural resource continues in many parts of the country, particularly inland lakes.

As a Zambian I am also asking the Lord to make that same helium manifest itself in Mbala and Mpulungu, because in my mind I know that Lake Rukwa is only about 100 kilometers away from Mbala.

Anyhow, helium is  an important gas that the world has been craving for. Experts have been warning of a looming global shortage of helium for years, as the known reserves were almost being depleted. Now British researchers have discovered a large reserve of helium gas in Tanzania, using a new exploration method that offers hope for the future.

But the question is, what is the whole fuss about this discovery? In brief, Helium is  used, among other things, as a cooling gas for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines used in medical facilities. It is also used as a protective gas for welding, an inert gas for controlled atmosphere manufacturing, a fugitive gas used for leak detection, and a low viscosity gas for pressurized breathing mixtures.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), or magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to image the anatomy and the physiological processes of the body in both health and disease. MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields, radio waves, and field gradients to form images of the body. MRI has therefore, proven to be a highly versatile imaging modality hence it’s  wide use in hospitals and clinics for medical diagnosis, staging of disease and follow-up without exposing the body to ionizing radiation.

The discovery of  such large quantities of  helium at such a time as this puts Tanzania on the spotlight. The question to ask is, “Will the discovery of Helium in Tanzania be another statistic of Africa’s continued Resource Curse or for the first time, are we about to witness the new beginning of the end of  Predatory Investments in Africa’s Extractive Industries? What will Magufuli do or is it what should Magufuli now do?

I ask the question because the rich countries have already emptied half of Africa’s Uranium, Copper, Cobalt, Coal, Zink and now Helium in Tanzania will be a new target. Will Tanzania’s Helium become another curse of Zambia’s copper, or Angola, Gabon and Nigeria’s oils? What does this mean for Tanzania?

My concerns are validated by the human development performance of many resource-rich African states that remain dismal. African oil and mineral exporters routinely rank near the bottom of UNDP’s Human Development Index and exhibit highly inequitable levels of income and wealth. The challenge of effective natural resource management in Africa is becoming increasingly urgent.

With more than 20 countries possessing bountiful oil and mineral deposits, Africa is home to more resource-rich states than any other region in the world. Yet, living conditions for most citizens remain dismal as a result of inequitable distribution of resource revenues. Sub-Saharan Africa’s top five petroleum producers rank among the bottom third in the world in terms of child mortality. The continent’s two largest producers—Angola and Nigeria—rank among the bottom ten countries in this category. Zambia and Congo are the leading producers of Copper and Cobalt but still rank among the poorest of the poor in Africa. What a shame!

Oil and mining ventures are arguably the most lucrative businesses in Africa, generating billions of dollars in revenues annually. But these billions have typically been squandered. Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, for example, boasts an impressive annual gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $37,479. Yet, on the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index, Equatorial Guinea ranks 144th out of 187 countries. Equatorial Guinea ranks dead last in public expenditure on education as a percent of GDP and near the bottom in terms of health expenditure per capita.

The challenge of effective natural resource management in Africa is becoming increasingly urgent. In 2000, 7 Sub-Saharan African countries exported more than 20,000 barrels of oil per day. By 2013, this number had climbed to 10 countries. Overall crude oil production in the sub region rose from 4.2 million to 5.8 million barrels per day, a 38-percent increase.

With promising crude oil discoveries in Kenya, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, as well as important natural gas discoveries in Mozambique and Tanzania, the number of African resource exporters can be expected to grow still further. Many of these Countries will need to develop from scratch the institutional and legal frameworks required to effectively manage the extractive industries. In Kenya, for example, the country’s Petroleum Act is a 13-page document from 1986. Can one Mbunge in Tanzania table a motion in parliament to govern the extraction and use of helium in Tanzania? Can be done by tomorrow before the predators have had time to influence the new law? I pray no confusion will emerge.

Natural resource wealth has also been intimately linked to violent conflict across Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebel groups have used the proceeds of mineral sales to fund their military operations. Grievances about environmental degradation and inequitable distribution of oil wealth—as well as the manipulation of these sentiments by warlords seeking to profit from instability in the region—fuels insurgent groups in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. The sale of “blood diamonds” funded brutal civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Inequitable distribution of oil wealth was a central issue in Sudan’s civil war, and continued disputed claims over oil-rich territory regularly threaten renewed conflict between Khartoum and independent South Sudan.

In short, for the vast majority of resource-rich African states, oil and mineral wealth has not translated into improved living conditions for citizens but contributed to growing disparity, corruption, and repression.

So we ask again, What will Magufuli do right?  Who will get the license to mine the gas? Where is the legal framework to govern that? Should Tanzania hold on to the deposits and open a large scale Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) manufacturing company so that Tanzania becomes the largest producer of MRI machines in the world. What about medical diagnostics? Will this lead to better diagnosis for Tanzania and Africa?

Well, the equation typically boils down to three components: 1) corruptible senior figures in a government responsible for managing the natural resource sector coupled with weak oversight institutions, 2) unscrupulous multinational investors who partner with senior government officials to exploit resource-rich states while evading scrutiny, and 3) loopholes in the international economic legal system that allow external investors and corrupt officials alike to transfer revenues out of resource-rich states and into the international financial system with limited reporting requirements.

Our prayers are with Tanzania to get it right and may Helium discovery be the missing link in Tanzania’s prosperity. I look forward to investing in Tanzania to develop the world’s largest diagnostic machine producing company. Mugu abariki Tanzania.

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