Radar Row

In late December, the purchase from the United Kingdom of a US$40-million radar system for the Tanzanian air system sparked off a controversy in the British Cabinet and drew criticism in Tanzania and beyond. Experts questioned why Tanzania needed such an expensive system when it was clear that a more efficient one, at least for the civilian aviation industry, could be built for around a quarter of the cost.

According to a joint report in Nairobi’s The East African (Dec. 24-30), David Rider, the editor of Jane’s Air Traffic Control, wondered why Tanzania needed a military defense system when it has only eight military aircraft. The BAE Air Traffic Control system was not suitable for civil aviation, he said.

“Putting $40 million into British government tantamount to throwing away half of the gains in debt relief that this country would enjoy next year: $77 million. And more, because the equipment is being purchased through a commercial loan from a private British bank—which will re-swell Tanzania’s external debt!” read an editorial in Dar es Salaam’s Business Times (Dec. 28). The paper observed: “Some of our more reliable supporters in the world and in development—the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—are of the view that the system being purchased has ‘military capability’ that Tanzania does not really need.” According to these institutions, noted Business Times, Tanzania could do well with a $10 million system.

However, the Daily News (Dec. 19) had earlier quoted President Benjamin Mkapa as affirming that he fully supported the radar purchase because it would increase safety at Tanzania’s airports. In its Dec. 25 issue, Majira reported that the Tanzania Labor Party had petitioned Prime Minister Tony Blair to stop the radar deal, as it would give rise to severe economic implications for ordinary Tanzanians. In a report in The East African (Dec. 24-30) the Tanzanian government said the radar purchase was purely an internal matter that had been blown out of proportion. “The debate in the U.K. Cabinet translates into typical neo-colonialism,” a senior government official told The East African.

The row in the British Cabinet came after it was revealed that the hardware had already been built at a British factory after assurances came from the Ministry of Defense that the deal “would be nodded through.” BAE Systems is said to have been privately assured by British civil servants that the scheme would be approved and, as a result, the system had already been assembled to go out to Tanzania, which, according to The East African, was said to have made a $5 million downpayment.

Before the Cabinet meeting took place, it became clear that the deal had been okayed by Blair despite opposition from the World Bank, British NGOs, and even members of his own Cabinet. “Not much has been disclosed about the... deal,” said political scientist Michael Okema in a column in The East African (Jan. 7-13). “What is clear is that every reason given to justify it can easily be put to question.”