Possession and use of explosives is not just an ordinary criminal offense in Uganda, Rwanda, or Kenya. In this day and age, it is an offense under the respective anti-terrorism legislation, and for good reasons.
In both Rwanda and Uganda, explosives were used in the past against soft targets by elements violently opposed to the governments of the day. In Kenya today, it is Al Shabab and their sympathizers which use homemade, industrial, and military explosives to manufacture improvised explosive devices, in short IEDs, to terrorize ordinary people.
Yet in Tanzania, there seems to exist a flourishing “industry” which uses a mix of homemade and industrial explosive materials to hunt for fish along the reefs off the coastline from South of Dar es Salaam all the way to Tanga and beyond. Observation of the criminal practice confirmed that much of the yellow-fin tunas, which are either killed outright or stunned, are not even scooped out of the water. They are left to sink to the bottom of the sea, depleting breeding stocks and decimating the catch of ordinary normal fishermen who have been plying their trade for generations upon generations with hand lines and nets. Leisure fishing has been seriously affected, it could be established during a recent visit to Dar es Salaam, and while officially reef fishing has been banned by the Ministry of Fisheries, there is in any case literally nothing left along lengthy stretches of the coast on both sides of Dar es Salaam to fish for, as the fish and the reef have been killed off by the use of such explosives.
These explosions can be heard on land and definitely be seen when out on the ocean, and “official Tanzania” – the naval forces, marine police, and other land-based security organizations – simply cannot claim to be unaware of this growing criminal enterprise.
Of course, Africa’s police forces are not enjoying the best of reputations in the world among the global law enforcement fraternity, for reasons of corruption as well as often incompetence when dealing with ordinary crime. Regularly claiming that they are underfunded and under facilitated, that argument never comes up when pursuing the political opposition of the regime of the day or the media, but that is an entirely different issue, related but not the focus of this article.
Several individuals spoken with while in Dar es Salaam decried the open practice of fishing with explosives but equally admitted that reporting the matter to the authorities has produced no results at all, suggesting that, almost like with the out-of-control poaching for elephant, here too are godfathers at work to protect their foot soldiers while reaping massive profits.
In the past, Somali pirates were caught in Tanzanian waters and even on land when trying to resupply for water and food, and with the advance of Islamic militancy, as seen on both the mainland as well as on Zanzibar in the past, a new dimension now comes into play.
While those engaged in fishing with explosives may well be known among themselves, there is today no longer any guarantee that these groups may not be used, sooner or later, to be infiltrated by militants with an entirely different and altogether more sinister agenda. The gas installations and pipelines off the Mtwara shores further in the south of the country could become targets, as could the fiber-optic cables laid on the ocean floor – one to disrupt the economy, and the other to disrupt communications. Cargo vessels anchored offshore while waiting to be admitted into Dar es Salaam port could also be targeted, perhaps to sink one or two of them and block the entrance to the port – all scenarios heard of elsewhere and a nightmare for security forces in countries where such threats are taken seriously. Perhaps it is reaching far to suggest that fishing with explosives could provide the “environment” to infiltrate and prepare for a terror strike, but no one who knows the tactics of Al Shabaab and other radical groups can for a moment doubt that these terrorists are not eyeing each and every lapse in vigilance and aren’t ready to push through an open door in the security arrangements, given half a chance.
Hence the ongoing “fishing” with explosives is not just a threat to tourism activities on the ocean, like fishing and diving, it also destroys the crucially important reefs which took hundreds of years to build up and protect the shore from erosion, and is also a clear and present danger to the security of the state and its citizens.
Meanwhile, findings of this correspondent while in Dar es Salaam are also alarming on a different level as no one spoken with was willing to go on record or be quoted for fear of repercussions or worse, indicating how far the tentacles of corruption must have spread if citizens no longer trust their police to report such crimes, or the perpetrators for fear that the identity of the informers could be revealed to the criminals with potentially-devastating consequences.
Said an owner of a company offering deep sea fishing and diving for tourists, again on condition of strict anonymity: “If the government does not step up surveillance and crack down on this practice, there will soon be no reefs left to dive. And when the fish are gone, leave alone our tourists will no longer be able to fish, but the normal fishermen will lose their livelihood, too. The ecological impact is already massive, and where the reefs are destroyed, the beaches start to erode. The loss of biodiversity will be irreversible and so will the damage to the beaches. And make no mistake, when these guys are out at sea, they chase our boats away under threat of force. This has been reported through associations and directly to police, and nothing has happened. When will security wake up? When a couple of tourists have been blown to bits, because they happened to dive there or their boat was targeted because they did not turn on their heels fast enough? Or when, as you call it, more sinister elements have blown up a drilling platform or pipeline?”
As is the case with poaching, fishing with explosives appears to be a highly-lucrative criminal enterprise with as much as a several hundred kilograms of yellow-fin tunas and other sought-after fish scooped up and sold, with apparently no questions asked where the fish came from, whether obtained legally or illegally. Fodder for thought about a country already under intense pressure and scrutiny over their poaching record of recent years, when tens of thousands of elephant were wiped out, a topic which will in due course also receive some added attention after on-site discussions with conservationists while in Tanzania.