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Caught in the Web of Bureaucracy? How ‘Failed’ Land Deals Shape the State in Tanzania

Sina Schlimmer


After more than ten years of hectic debates on international ‘land grabs’, academic interest in collapsed land deals or projects with unexpected results is growing. According to the Land Matrix, Tanzania is one of the target countries for such deals, with a number ‘abandoned’ or delayed and projects whose status is unknown. Labelling land deals as ‘failed’ poses conceptual and methodological challenges as long as the criteria for ‘failure’ are undefined. Based on the critical literature on policy failure, this article starts from the premise that the focus on ‘failure’ masks dynamics that actually work, such as administrative resistance and daily state making. Land deals are defined as the implementation of pro-investment land policies. The article then analyses the trajectories of two interrupted biofuel projects with international investors in the districts of Bagamoyo and Kisarawe. The results of this analysis show how the uncertainty surrounding the future of both land deals creates margins of manoeuvre for bureaucratic and political agents on different government levels to renegotiate their power, and for transnational civil society stakeholders to consolidate their positions in the land arena. The omnipresence of administrative procedures opens the debate over whether the Tanzanian regime has completed its transition towards liberalism or if it reflects its socialist legacy.

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The author would like to express her gratitude to the French Institute for Research in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya for funding parts of her field work in Tanzania. She is also grateful to the research laboratory Les Afriques dans le Monde at Sciences Po Bordeaux for providing support for her participation at international conferences where she presented and discussed her work. The proofreading of an earlier version of the paper by Wendy Wolford, Youjin B. Chung and Marie Gagné have been very useful.

1. Introduction

1More than ten years after initial media reports describing a new phenomenon of large-scale land transactions in the global South and in Africa in particular, land deals with foreign investors remain a controversial topic (Borras at al., 2020; Fautras, Iocco, 2020; Gyapong, 2020; Scoones et al., 2019; Oberlack et al., 2016). Empirical evidence has shown that in most cases these large-scale land deals (LSLDs) do not consist of unilateral land grabs by powerful foreign companies. Rather, the transactions comprise multi-stakeholder negotiations and reveal complex national and local power dynamics. Recent contributions have challenged the idea of weak, passive or even absent state actors and highlighted the complexities of their interests, capacities and activities expressed in the different processes of, and at different moments in, land transactions (Moreda, 2017; Schoneveld, 2017; Lavers and Boamah, 2016; Wolford et al., 2013).

2When examining the role of host states in LSLDs, scholars have often emphasised the favourable position of governmental and administrative stakeholders and their interest in the success of land rights transfers to multinationals. Host governments would, scholars argue, promote pro-land investment policies and collaborate with foreign investors, smoothen processes, and thereby pave the way for land acquisitions (Hall et al., 2015; Cotula, 2013; Evers, Seagle and Kritjetnburg, 2013; Dabat, 2011). This position is reflected in a contribution to the second and methodologically more critical wave of research on LSLDs:

‘the state has a central role in facilitating contemporary global land grabbing. Therefore, it has to be a significant part of any analysis of the politics around land deals, even when it appears to be largely absent on the ground […]. States engaged in systematic policy and administrative tasks aimed at capturing so-called “marginal lands” and turning them into an investable commodity.’ (Borras, Franco and Wang , 2013, 1728-1729).

  • 1 Out of 89 land deals, 32 are ‘in operation’, nine are in the start-up phase (no production), four p (...)

3Only few researchers have shed light on cases where dynamics within the state apparatus have slowed down the pace of a negotiation or even hindered project implementation (Sulle, 2020). This article reveals administrative negotiations and bureaucratic struggles on different government levels that delay or block the implementation of a land deal, or at least lead to unintended outcomes. It thereby not only contributes to the debate on the political parameters of LSLDs, it feeds into a growing research stream on cases that—for various reasons—are considered ‘failed’. Whereas the discrepancies between the number of transactions announced and those that are actually being implemented are generally recognised in the literature (Johansson et al., 2016; Nolte, Chamberlain and Giger, 2016), the reasons for their ‘failure’ are diverse and can interfere at different moments of the deal (Schönweger and Messerli, 2015). Studies generally look at land deals that have not reached the stage of (agricultural) production (Boche and Anseeuw, 2013). Some projects have experienced difficulties taking off because of grassroots or transnational mobilisation (Temper, 2019), historical resource conflicts (Chung, 2019) or financial bottlenecks, especially in the biofuel sector (Ahmed, Abubakari and Gasparatos, 2019; Tufa, Amsalu and Zoomers, 2018). In Tanzania, an alleged target country for international land deals (Locher, 2017; Exner et al., 2015; Purdon, 2013; Sulle and Nelson, 2009) and the country that constitutes the empirical ground of this research, the number of cases reported delayed, interrupted or abandoned has increased (Chung, 2020; Engström and Hajdu, 2018; Locher and Sulle, 2014). According to the Land Matrix, a little more than one-third of the 89 deals concluded are ‘in operation’, while 18 have not been implemented or were definitely abandoned.1

4Understanding why some land deals struggle to materialise is crucial for a broader understanding of the long-term socio-economic impacts of LSLDs (Oya, 2013). This approach, however, comes with methodological challenges as both the conceptual and empirical delimitations of the ‘failure’ are often unclear. A major difficulty consists in defining the moment and stage at which a land deal can be considered collapsed: for instance, has a project without agricultural production failed, even though the land rights have been transferred? Defining a ‘failure’ also depends on one’s perspective: whereas an interrupted deal may reflect a missed opportunity in terms of agricultural and local development policies, it can be considered a success by grassroots organisations mobilising against its implementation or by local authorities gaining control over the plot of land. Therefore, the notion of ‘failure’ risks concealing the varieties of experiences, interests and power relations behind the different trajectories of land deals.

  • 2 Governments and companies negotiate land deals by referring to different sources of land rights (fo (...)

5Based on the literature on policy analysis, this article questions the notion of ‘failed’ land deals. While there is still a certain lack of conceptual clarity, policy failure is often assessed—by both experts and practitioners—as a gap between government objectives and outcomes (Lascoumes and Le Galès, 2018) and a deviation of the policy process during the implementation. Experts in this approach study why objectives have not been achieved, results have not met expectations, or problems have not been solved (Zittoun, 2015, 244). Yet policies, like land deals, are rarely based on single and easily measurable objectives, but rather contain a wide range of more or less formalised expectations and perceptions of different stakeholders (Allan, 2010). Intentions and goals are constantly negotiated during the formulation, the formalisation, and the implementation of policies and it is therefore difficult to state at what point a policy project can be defined as ‘failed’. In the same vein, the article argues that land deals that are labelled as ‘failed’ offer administrative loopholes via which state actors on different levels (ministries, district land departments, village authorities, etc.) can reaffirm their authority over land (Lund and Boone, 2013) by inventing more or less formal and spontaneous institutions2 (Bottazzi, Goguen and Rist, 2016). The trajectories of two abandoned biofuel projects in Tanzania reveal complex state formation processes, especially at the ‘street bureaucracy’ or implementation level (Lipsky, 1980).

  • 3 For instance, in several cases interview partners—especially company employees, but also central an (...)

6The article builds on an earlier piece on the gap between the formulation and the implementation of land investment policies in Tanzania (Schlimmer, 2019), but focuses on the debate regarding ‘failure’ by drawing on different case studies. The research is based on a completed PhD project for which fieldwork was conducted in Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, and Kisarawe districts in 2014 and 2015. Different research methods were employed to retrace and analyse the trajectories of the land deals: a little more than 50 semi-structured interviews and informal and group discussions were conducted with different stakeholders of land deals (members of central, district, and village governments; company representatives; civil society organisations; land users; donors). Documents, including communications between companies and administrations, maps, NGO reports, and local studies, enabled a further understanding of the negotiation processes. Finally, a thorough review of the anglophone national daily newspapers (The Citizen, The Guardian and Daily News, covering the period from 2000 to 2020)—both the paper-based and online media—completed the data collection and made it possible to follow up on the case studies even after field work had been finalised in 2015. It is worth mentioning that in Tanzania, as in other countries, land deals are a sensitive topic and data collection for cases involving capital transfers, politics, and opaque discussions between multinationals and high-level government stakeholders can be impeded by methodological challenges.3 Both case studies have received national and international media attention, sometimes involving the diffusion of different or even contradictory information.

7The article is structured into two sections. The first section offers a thorough discussion of the analytical foundation of this study, stressing the historical and continuous intertwining of land policy processes and state formation in Tanzania. It also explains the complex, multilevel procedure for land deals involving village land. Section two analyses the trajectories of two land deals and the political dynamics at work in moments that preceded and followed their ‘failure’. The article concludes with a discussion of the main results of both cases, stressing that ‘collapsed’ land deals represent a fertile empirical ground for taking the pulse of state formation in Tanzania, wavering between the promotion of liberal principles and an attachment to bureaucracy.

2. State Formation and Land Policies in Tanzania

2.1 How to Study the State’s Trajectory through the Lens of Land Policies

8The regulation of access to and control over land has been a cornerstone of social and political organisation in Tanzania since the precolonial period (Rwegasira, 2012). As in other African contexts (Grajales, 2020; Labzaé, 2016; Boone, 2015), the formulation and implementation of land policies has both reflected and contributed to institution building and the formation of postcolonial nation states. Based on J. Lonsdale’s and B. Berman’s conceptual distinction, this article understands ‘state formation’ as a historical process with partially unconscious and contradictory dynamics of conflict, negotiation, and compromise (Berman and Lonsdale, 1992; Bayart, 1989). This contrasts with the narrower approach to ‘state building’, which refers to the conscious making of institutions and administrative processes (Soares de Oliveira and Taponier, 2013). The entanglement of state formation and land policies in Tanzania can be addressed through a double approach: firstly, the content of land legislation programmes and land-related discourses since Independence reflect ideological shifts within the state administration and, more broadly, the idea of the duties of the state (Abrams, 1988). Secondly, land policies are implemented by agents and administrative bodies on different levels of government, reflecting everyday practices, negotiations, and contradictions within a state at work (Schlimmer, 2017; Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan, 2014; Hagmann and Péclard, 2010).

9After achieving independence in 1961, the first two decades of Tanzanian politics were shaped by the vision of its first president, Julius K. Nyerere, who sought to build a unified nation and a self-sufficient economy based on African socialism (Coulson, 1982). Nyerere was strongly opposed to capitalism and privatisation and refused to allow the introduction of individual private ownership and the commodification of land rights (Kamata, 2010). Under the ujamaa system, land policies reflected Nyerere’s social engineering project of creating a rigid administrative hierarchy headed by a robust central state: this administration was in charge of implementing the villagisation programme, whereby entire villages were relocated and people lost access to the land they had formerly owned. Central government authorities prescribed specific rules regarding land allocation, land use and agricultural production, which were then implemented by deconcentrated state agents, thereby upsetting existing land-related practices and social organisation (Lal, 2015; Scott, 1998; Hyden, 1975). The resignation of President Nyerere in 1985 heralded the end of the ‘dynamic utopia’ (Martin, 1988) of ujamaa, but the legacy of his ideology continues to shape politics and policies (Fouéré, 2014), especially in the land sector (Schlimmer, 2016).

  • 4 The Tanzanian Investment Centre was created in 1995 as a one-stop shop for foreign investors in ord (...)
  • 5 Interview with a land expert at Ardhi University, Dar es Salaam, 9 April 2015.

10The end of the Nyerere era marked the beginning of a transition towards liberalism and the promotion of private investment. Discursive transformations and ideological shifts could also be observed in the land sector: since the mid-1980s, agricultural and land policies have placed emphasis on formalising and commodifying land rights and attracting private companies, examples including the 1983 National Agricultural Policy (URT, 1983), the 1995 National Land Policy (URT, 1995), the land acts of 1999 (URT, 1999a, URT, 1999b) and the Five Year Development Plan 2016/17‒2020/21 (URT, 2016). The land reform of the late 1990s was followed by a series of programmes and initiatives advocating the need for international capital and commercialised agricultural projects—the development of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT) (Bergius, Benjaminsen and Widgren, 2018) being a prime example. So-called ‘methods’, such as the ‘Big Results Now!’ programme, aimed at fostering investment by creating direct channels between companies and the central government in key economic sectors, including agriculture (URT, 2013). A key step in this ideological shift towards liberalism through land investment policies was the project of creating a land bank (The Guardian, 2005). Since its launch less than two decades ago, administrative agents on the district and regional levels have been asked to identify and set aside suitable plots for investment. This done, foreign investors should access this readily available land through the Tanzanian Investment Centre,4 instead of going through the fastidious and complex procedures of several public agencies acting on different administrative levels (see Section 2.2). The project, however, has never been completed, and is mired in unanswered questions, even among Tanzanian land experts.5

11Like the land bank project, land deals with national and international companies are part and parcel of pro-investment land policies and reflect, a priori, the transition of the Tanzanian state from a socialist to a more liberal regime. In this research, LSLDs are therefore analysed through the lens of policy implementation, whereby administrative and land agents, land users, and other stakeholders (company representatives, civil society stakeholders, etc.) at different levels redefine the objectives of investment promotion (Pedersen, 2016; German, 2012). Just as with other policies or public actions, land deals are a result of bricolage by diverse public and non-public stakeholders (Boussaguet et al., 2015; Hassenteufel, 2014). In the course of their implementation, their content and intentions are redefined, reappropriated and reshaped on different territorial scales (Hill and Hupe, 2014; Douillet, 2003). Recently, scholars have argued that the gaps between policy objectives and outcomes are more important in African countries given the cognitive discrepancies and the relative disruption between national elites and the implementation level (Darbon and Provini, 2018; Schlimmer, 2016; Pedersen, 2012).

2.2 The Administrative Machinery of the Implementation of Land Deals

  • 6 Interview with a land lawyer and lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam, 29 Apr (...)

12The institutional architecture and the procedures shaping land transactions with foreign investors in Tanzania provide a fertile ground for administrative struggles and power plays. Three categories of land are distinguished. The allocation and management of general and reserved land falls under the authority of the central government, whereas village land, which covers around 57 per cent of the territory (Lwanga-Ntale, 2018, 14), is governed by village bodies. Most of the land deals resulting from the recent rise in foreign investment target village land (Locher and Sulle, 2014). Foreign investors cannot directly acquire village land and can only obtain a derivative right of occupancy for general land. Village land can be converted into general land if this is in the ‘public interest’ (URT, 1967), and such conversion involves decision-making processes on the village, the district, and the central government levels (Isakkson and Sigte, 2009). As the land bank does not provide already identified and transferable plots from the category of general land, investors are generally redirected from the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) to district administrations, from where the search for land in village areas starts. Landowners and community members need to approve the conversion from village to general land during consultations and meetings of the Village Assembly, including all village members above 18 years of age. Land demarcation and survey exercises need to be conducted in order to estimate the compensation rate for individuals and the community, and this has to be carried out before the land transfer takes place. If the land conversion is approved by the village members and institutions, the decision is forwarded to the Ministry of Lands, which gazettes the land for a period of 90 days. Although the procedure of land conversion is formalised in the Village Land Act (URT, 1999b) and the Land Act (URT, 1999a), the process—from the initial investment proposal to the final transfer of land—can take several years.6 More or less formal decision-making processes as well as back-and-forth communication between investors and village, district, and national institutions often make land deal implementations a complex and opaque affair.

3. A State at Work in a State of Uncertainty

13In Tanzania, debates about illegal land acquisitions by government officials or administrative agents can be traced back to the beginning of investment promotion in the 1990s (Havnevik and Harsmar, 1999). But intensifying private investment in land and agriculture in the last decade or so has given a new boost to national and international discussions on dubious land deals and these have used the East-African nation as an illustrative example of the global ‘land rush’ (ActionAid Tanzania, 2015; Hart et al., 2014), driven mainly by escalating attention from the media, NGOs, and foreign researchers looking to expose specific land deals. Soon after the initial ‘hype’ about LSLDs (Kaag and Zoomers, 2014) in Tanzania, reports of unclear statuses, disrupted development plans, and broken promises hinted at the limited success of certain projects (Zirulnick, 2015; Carrington, 2011). According to Martina Locher and Emmanuel Sulle (2014), the fact that failed or not (yet) concluded foreign land investment projects are numerous is due to the difficulty of obtaining a land title, financial difficulties, and the refusal by investors to accept additional transaction costs linked to complex and lengthy bureaucratic procedures. The two following examples will build on this argument and demonstrate in more detail how administrative processes leading to and bureaucratic uncertainty and hesitation resulting from ‘failed’ investment projects translate into a reconfiguration of power relations within the land sector.

3.1 From a ‘Failed’ Jatropha Project to the Reinvention of Administrative Procedures in Kisarawe

  • 7 Interview with a land officer of the KDC, Kisarwe, 10 June 2015.

14On September 25, 2005, the company Sun Biofuels Tanzania Limited (hereafter referred to as SBF), whose shares belong almost exclusively (98 per cent) to British investors, was registered in the files of the TIC. As the TIC’s land bank was empty, the investors themselves undertook a search for land suitable for their interest in ‘planting in large scale of oil seed crops for the production and distribution of bio-fuels (crude and redefined products)’ (TIC, 2009). Their quest led them to the district of Kisarawe, and to a farm situated about 70 kilometres from Dar es Salaam. According to the official proposal, the investors intended to acquire 40,000 hectares in order ‘to become one of the biggest biofuel producers in the world’ (Sun Biofuels, 2006). The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) concluded between SBF and the Kisarawe District Council (KDC), however, reshaped the initial objective: the amount of land to be transferred to the company was limited to 18,000 hectares (SBF, KDC, 2006). During the survey undertaken by district officials, the project area was again reduced to 8,211 hectares, covering parts of 11 villages and including both individually owned and community village land. One of the land officers of Kisarawe stressed the district experts’ responsibility to evaluate and, if needed, to restrain the size of the land plot targeted: ‘he [the investor] needed more land but we know each village and we know the land that is available in each village. More than 20,000 hectares were expected for large-scale agriculture. We surveyed [the land] that is available there. The land that we tabled was about 8,200 hectares. They [SBF] agreed because this size of land was not available anywhere nearby Dar es Salaam.’7

15In May 2009, the company obtained its certificate of occupancy for converted general land, valid for 99 years. In 2010, however, five years after the presentation of the company’s intentions, SBF announced its bankruptcy and the closure of the project site (Bergius, 2012; Wa Simbaye, 2011; Lugungulo, 2011). The project was cancelled before the large-scale production of jatropha and the related socio-economic development projects, including the employment and training of farmers and the construction of local infrastructure, had begun. The announcement regarding SBF’s bankruptcy and the failure of the project did not, however, mark the end of land transactions and administrative negotiations: parts of the company were repeatedly resold to different firms, including to Mauritius-based 30 Degrees East and, in 2014, to Mtanga Foods Limited (hereafter referred to as Mtanga). While the land title remained under SBF’s name, Mtanga intended to establish a commercial cattle farm. Spurred by heated debates about its ‘failure’, the SBF deal became one of the first widely known examples of land grabbing by foreign investors in Tanzania leading to broken promises (Liberti, 2013; ActionAid, 2012). And while the debates focused on investors’ abandonment of the project, this sequence fuelled new administrative processes, negotiations, and power struggles over territorial control on the ground, in both Kisarawe and Dar es Salaam.

16The continuous (re)designing of this investment project offers up the basis for several empirical observations: i) land investment policy implementation takes place at different levels of the state apparatus; ii) it is shaped by competing interests within and between administrations; and iii) state as well as non-state actors used this moment of policy ‘failure’ to reaffirm their legitimacy as participants in the land policy arena.

  • 8 At the village level, land questions are discussed by a set of actors and institutions, including t (...)
  • 9 Group discussion with six members of the ‘task force’ for land compensation, composed of 11 village (...)

17Central government institutions like the TIC or the Ministry of Lands were not the only decision-makers in the different phases of the project’s trajectory. In fact, agents at the district level in Kisarawe turn out to have played a pivotal role in negotiations with SBF and with its successor, Mtanga. Throughout the negotiation of the deal, the KDC acted as a platform via which the central government, village institutions8 and representatives of the investing companies connected with one another. For instance, the MoU that records SBF’s commitment to creating employment and to contributing to development projects in 11 target villages is countersigned by the Chairman of the KDC. Furthermore, the MoU’s provisions were principally negotiated between public agents and technical experts of the KDC and SBF. Some district officials illegally accelerated the process of land acquisition by SBF: according to Tanzanian land laws, village landowners and communities must be compensated before the final land transfer takes place. When SBF obtained its right of occupancy in 2009, that compensation was still pending. Despite this, several district officials had already addressed a document to the Ministry of Lands certifying the fulfilment of all requirements (The Citizen, 2013). This created power conflicts between district officials and village leaders, the latter complaining about the lack of KDC protection for the villagers’ interests.9

  • 10 Interview with a land officer of the KDC, Kisarawe, 11 April 2015.
  • 11 Interview with a project manager from Mtanga, Kisarawe, 25 June 2015.

18At first glance, district agents seemed to act in favour of the investors’ interests. However, the KDC’s reaction to SBF’s withdrawal reflects nuanced results and contradicting measures. After the disappointing experience with the biofuel firm and the numerous accusations of land grabbing, some district agents became more sceptical and applied stricter scrutiny to subsequent investment projects.10 Mtanga’s cattle initiative, which began in 2013, remained in limbo while district officials examined the project. The importation of 160 animals was delayed for several months in 2014 when KDC officials requested the new company apply for an authorisation to change use of the land from agriculture to cattle, and that it conduct an environmental and social impact assessment. One of the Mtanga project managers described the cumbersome bureaucracy present at the district level: ‘to get here was quite an obstacle and a lot of bureaucratic involvements, especially when you get down to the council level, the Kisarawe district council.’11

  • 12 Interview with the head of the planning department at the KDC, Kisarawe, 16 June 2015.

19In order to avoid further public blame regarding land grabbing, the district authorities also developed new administrative procedures to assess the reliability and the sustainability of agricultural investment projects. For instance, the KDC created an ‘investment roundtable’ composed of heads of departments (education, land, agriculture, community development, etc.) as an additional layer of decision-making regarding the acceptance, or refusal, of an investment project.12

  • 13 Interview with the head of the agriculture and land rights department of ActionAid Tanzania, Dar es (...)

20The years following SBF’s withdrawal were also marked by inter-administrative struggles between village, district, and central government authorities. The legacy of the project continued to shape the daily practices of the different administrations. When some district agents falsely confirmed that compensation had been paid for the village community land acquired by SBF, they both bypassed community members, who had not been consulted, and challenged the authority of the Ministry of Lands, which had to approve the procedure. This abuse of power was brought up in 2013 by the international NGO ActionAid, whose members supported the communities’ demand for fair compensation. For example, the NGO helped the Village Chairmen and Executive Officers of the 11 villages to form a task force and to present their requirements to district officials and to the central government. Following this local mobilisation, the Ministry of Lands convoked a stakeholders’ meeting with several village leaders and district officials to clarify the situation and to set terms for the payment of the compensation. In January 2014, SBF’s successor, Mtanga, paid compensation of 549 million Tanzanian shillings (around USD 303,000), which was shared among the KDC and the different communities.13 The intervention of ActionAid triggered a temporary power shift with regard to the KDC’s monopoly in the implementation of the deal towards the village communities and the central government. Thanks to the financial, technical, and political resources of an external civil society organisation, the members of the village task force were able to access the bargaining arena and to claim their rights. By ‘picking up the pieces from a failed land grab project’ (Wise, 2014), the NGO also consolidated its role as a transnational pioneer of advocacy against dubious land deals and increased its legitimacy as a stakeholder in the land sector in Tanzania.

3.2 From Uncertainty to Abandonment: The ‘Mega Public–Private Project’14 in Bagamoyo

  • 14 See Zirulnick (2015).

21The district of Bagamoyo has been one of the Coast Region’s pioneers in terms of investment promotion. Being the home district of President Jakaya K. Kikwete (2005‒10) and having a strategic position as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, the district has been declared a target area for several initiatives aimed at attracting investment, including the development of a Special Economic Zone and the construction of an international port (The Guardian, 2013). The public–private partnership between the government of Tanzania and the Swedish-based company Agro EcoEnergy, which aims to implement the ‘multi-billion Bagamoyo sugar project’ (The Citizen, 2017) in Bagamoyo, is part of this policy.

  • 15 As shown by Youjin B. Chung, the definition of general land in the land laws is ambiguous. It is de (...)
  • 16 The land was offered to the government of Zanzibar during the unification of Tanganyika and Zanziba (...)
  • 17 The BEE project is based on an economic approach, whereby farmers of surrounding communities and vi (...)

22In 2006, the Swedish municipal company Svensk Etanolkemi (SEKAB) aimed to become ‘one of Europe’s leading ethanol players’ (SEKAB, 2017) by realising a large-scale biofuel project in Tanzania. The project met with increasing criticism from both Tanzanian and Swedish civil society actors who were concerned by the potential impacts on land users (Abdallah et al., 2014). In 2009, the company was renamed Agro EcoEnergy (AEE) and a new business model was adopted based on a public–private partnership (PPP) with the Tanzanian government. The PPP between AEE and the Tanzanian government led to the creation of a ‘special purpose project company’ (Bagamoyo EcoEnergy Ltd. (BEE)) with the aim of encouraging greater participation from the government. In 2013, AEE was granted a right of occupancy for around 20,000 hectares of land (AEE, 2015). The plot is part of the former government ranch of Zanzibar (Ranchi ya Zanzibar Bagamoyo (RAZABA)) and had been progressively categorised as general land,15 which is managed by central government authorities. Unlike village land, rights to general land can be directly transferred to foreign investors in the form of a granted right of occupancy (GRO), without land category needing to be converted.16 AEE’s investment proposal focused on sugar cane production for the domestic market. The ethanol extracted as a by-product of sugarcane was supposed to be used for the electrification of the estate and the ‘outgrower’ villages17.

23The implementation of the sugarcane project was characterised by several years of uncertainty, which were cadenced by postponements, suspensions, criticism—especially by national and international civil society actors—and hesitation. Whereas the company’s GRO for the land at RAZABA was issued and delivered in 2013, the different villages of the outgrower scheme were, during the last field visit (August 2015), still waiting for the project to take off. In March 2015, one of the principal funders of the project, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, withdrew its financial support, triggering the first rumours about a definitive abandonment of the deal (Wa Songa, 2015). The project’s relatively slow evolution and the repeated postponement of agricultural production can be explained by several variables, which are linked to the project’s trajectory and the institutional setting framing its implementation. Most of these parameters are defined by stakeholders acting on the national and the international level. Even though the implementation of the land deal involved district officials, their margin of manoeuvre was limited, as explained by a district water engineer who represented the district administration during meetings with national stakeholders regarding the sugar cane project:

  • 18 Interview with the head of the agriculture department of the BDC, Bagamoyo, 27 July 2015.

‘I have been invited to the Minister of Finance for the negotiation with IFAD, concerning the EcoEnergy project […]. But I cannot change anything. At least I get informed what is happening. Because this is a complicated project and it is a national interest so it should be directed nationally.’18

24Given the project’s PPP design and its financial, technical and multi-sectorial scope, an important number of national government agencies were involved in the decision-making, including the TIC, the Ministries of Land, Agriculture, and Finance, and the Sugar Board. According to AEE’s director, Per Carstedt, the interplay of this orchestra of government stakeholders has been a challenge for the project’s implementation:

  • 19 Interview with the director of AEE, Dar es Salaam, 21 April 2015.

‘Can you imagine how many ministries we are working with? If I put it very gently […], 16 ministries, no 14 ministries and 17 government institutions. And each one of them can block the project […]. And, unfortunately there is an environment where people are very reluctant to take decisions […]. So, by not taking decisions, you don’t take any risk […]. You then add a project where you are going to deal with thirty ministries and institutions and it’s a half a billion-dollar investment.’19

  • 20 The Tanzanian government drafted a new land policy in 2016, but it is yet to be formalised and adop (...)
  • 21 This information stems from an e-mail exchange with the former Minister of Lands, 24 April 2017.

25The BEE project is situated at the crossroads of several national programmes related to land and agricultural policies. It was defined as a pilot for different government initiatives promoting ‘responsible investment’, including the SAGCOT and the national ‘Big Results Now!’, and involved national government stakeholders, such as the President’s Delivery Bureau, as the immediate negotiation partners for the company. More importantly, the land deal with AEE was part and parcel of a national land policy project initiated in 2011 and promoted by the then Minister of Lands, Anna Tibaijuka. Based on the principle of greater integration of the Tanzanian government as a shareholder, the AEE land deal was shaped as a new, responsible, win–win investment approach called ‘Land for Equity’. Central government and local communities would have become shareholders of the project, in return for the allocation land ‘free of encumbrance’. The government shareholders would have obtained 10 percent (non-dilutable) of the shares after ten years of production and 25 percent after 18 years of operation (AEE, 2017).Tibaijuka aimed to formalise and institutionalise this investment model by including it as a standard approach in the revised national land policy.20 But the initiative faced resistance from within the Ministry of Lands and from other government members opposed to the adoption of the model.21

  • 22 Interview with a land lawyer and expert, Dar es Salaam, 31 July 2015.

26The national government’s hesitation regarding the BEE implementation is also linked to transnational dynamics, such as the advocacy agenda of national and international civil society actors. Journalists, researchers and activists reported on the various risks the project presented regarding the land tenure and food security of local community members, and qualified it as another prime example of ‘land grabbing’ (Kitabu, 2013; Kisanga, 2014; Lungungulo, 2009). In March 2015, the NGO ActionAid published a report in which it lashed out at AEE, accusing the company of illegal acquisition of land (ActionAid, 2015). In the same month, the controversial content of the report fuelled a heated debate involving members of ActionAid, Tanzanian land experts and government representatives attending the 2015 World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, in Washington.22 According to the company’s CEO, this blame game increased hesitation and scepticism regarding the project among its main stakeholders, especially the Tanzanian government:

  • 23 Interview with the director of AEE, Dar es Salaam, 21 April 2015.

‘they [ActionAid] have been main bombing directly into the African Development Bank and say they shouldn’t draw the support for the project. They’ve been having a press conference in Sweden to attack SIDA that they should stop the support. They’ve been contacting IFAD in Rome […]. We don’t know what the impact is but they are doing absolutely everything they can. Trying to put a span in the wheel23’.

  • 24 The sugar cane project of AEE was built with divers financial resources: 500 million US dollars wer (...)

27The transnational architecture of the AEE land deal and the involvement of multiple international stakeholders also led to the creation of legal grey zones, which further impeded the project’s take-off: reliant on the financial support of several institutions24, the project’s implementation had to comply with international norms for so-called sustainable investment promoted by the International Finance Corporation. For instance, AEE planned to relocate the inhabitants of several settlements (especially in Bozi, Gama, Mkaani, Kaloleni Biga and Gobole) that had sprung up on the land at RAZABA since the 1990s. A consultancy was hired in 2011 to develop a Resettlement Action Plan that complied with IFC Performance Standard 5 on Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement. According to Tanzanian legislation, relocated inhabitants are compensated in cash, corresponding to the amount of the ‘unexhausted improvements’, whereas international norms provide for the allocation of a new plot of land and a habitation that corresponds to the inhabitant’s former habitation. A compromise therefore had to be negotiated between AEE and the Tanzanian government with the help of an external consultancy. Finally, the official start of the project depended on the adoption of a new policy, which had been requested by the project’s international sponsors, that protected the domestic industry from relatively barrier-free sugar importation.

28In February 2017, Tanzanian newspapers published a statement from the company’s director, Per Carstedt, announcing the cessation of the sugar cane project. The reason cited for his firm’s withdrawal was the government’s decision to end the PPP (The Guardian, 2017). The empirical evidence, however, reveals a more complex project trajectory, and an implementation cadenced and influenced by a web of stakeholders and decision-making processes, national political priorities, and international norms.

4. Conclusion

29The patterns of the investment promotion policies implemented in the coastal districts of Bagamoyo and Kisarawe share similar landmarks: in a context of international enthusiasm for alternative energies, the districts were identified around 15 years ago as target areas for large-scale biofuel production involving land acquisitions by European investment companies. Both the firms concerned were eager to become key international players in the biofuel market while contributing to the socio-economic development of rural communities in Tanzania. However, the companies’ deals were placed in the national and international spotlight by the media, activists, and critical researchers, all of whom pointed out a lack of respect for local land rights and the potential of both projects to increase poverty in the target regions. Finally, the land deals involving the British firm Sun Biofuels and the Swedish firm Agro EcoEnergy both—as so-called failed projects—left their mark on the trajectory of Tanzanian investment promotion policies. Whereas the jatropha project site in Kisarwe was closed in 2011 for internal financial reasons, the sugar cane company AEE in Bagamoyo officially announced its withdrawal from the project in 2017, after several years of negotiation with and hesitation among central government stakeholders and international donors.

30However, a closer look at the patterns of each deal shows that qualifying both cases as failed investment projects risks masking ongoing (re)negotiations of projects, bureaucratic processes, and the daily practices of different stakeholders contributing to public action. Focusing on the reactions of and interactions between administrations, public authorities, civil society stakeholders and companies after the announcement of ‘failure’ (in the case of SBF) and studying the transnational cumbersomeness that led to ‘collapse’ (in the case of AEE) actually confirms an apparently trivial and yet significant result: the Tanzanian state, defined through the various stakeholders involved in the making and implementation of land investment policies, is at work. Thus, the analytical aim is not to define and test variables that enable us to judge whether a deal can be considered as ‘failed’ or not, but rather to use the configurations preceding and following the withdrawal of these firms as an analytical entry point to a study of political transformations. This result corroborates the argument of scholars who, dealing with policy failure, state that the usefulness of the notion of ‘failure’ is limited, as it dissimulates the various interests involved in a policy process and the opportunities that a ‘failed’ project presents for new groups of stakeholders (as, for example, the NGO ActionAid, which legitimated its presence as a key stakeholder in the land sector in Tanzania).

31In both case studies, bureaucracy and inter-administrative negotiations have been substantial determinants of the course of the project’s trajectory. In Kisarawe, the continuous resale of parts of the company, the change of land use, and the issue of pending compensation have established a fertile ground upon which village, district, and national authorities bargain over legitimate authority with regard to village land that has been transformed into general land. The withdrawal of SBF also created suspicion among district agents, which led to the development of new administrative procedures for the implementation of future land deals. In the case of AEE’s project in Bagamoyo, its implementation was embedded in broader national policy goals, in a financial architecture involving international stakeholders, and in daily interactions between the company and multiple government stakeholders. The final withdrawal of the Tanzanian government from the PPP reflects the capacities of political and bureaucratic stakeholders to resist the international ‘land grab hype’. The failure of the BEE deal presented an opportunity for the national government of Tanzania to underline its authority over land, which it did when the Minster for Lands announced the revocation of the company’s land title. In doing so, the Minister replied to a long-standing politicised debate and electoral promise about nullifying land transfer deals with dubious investors that do not fulfil initially defined conditions (Schlimmer, 2018).

32The daily practices and negotiations that form the first analytical layer of state formation used in this article can be observed on different levels of the administrative hierarchy: whereas the district level played a central role in the implementation of the land deal with SBF, interactions between AEE and stakeholders on the national and international level shaped the sugar cane deal.

33The prevalence of bureaucracy in land deals in Tanzania could be interpreted as a legacy of more than 20 years of socialist state-formation headed by a central bureaucratic bourgeoisie (Samoff, 1979; Shivji, 1975). Recent research on the political economy of Tanzania, meanwhile, has stressed the country’s successful transition toward the principles of a market economy (Edwards, 2014; Lofchie, 2014). The research discussed in the present article confirms, rather, the ongoing in-between nature of the Tanzanian state: investment promotion land policies are constantly renegotiated by administrative stakeholders through bureaucratic processes, especially during their implementation. This vacillation between the ideological and bureaucratic legacy of the socialist past and the internationally promoted dogma of liberalism is a key characteristic of a post-socialist state (Schlimmer, 2016; Pitcher and Askew, 2007). To further test this premise of a post-socialist state it would be relevant to analyse state formation in Tanzania through the lens of other policy sectors.

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1 Out of 89 land deals, 32 are ‘in operation’, nine are in the start-up phase (no production), four projects have not started yet and 14 were abandoned. Data on implementation status is missing for 30 identified land deals: (last accessed on 9 June 2020).

2 Governments and companies negotiate land deals by referring to different sources of land rights (formal and informal, statutory and customary) and thereby create/invent new institutions.

3 For instance, in several cases interview partners—especially company employees, but also central and district government representatives—were sceptical of the researcher’s intentions. As ‘land grabbing’ in Tanzania has been strongly mediatised both within the country and abroad, interviewed stakeholders feared further accusations with regard to dubious land deals.

4 The Tanzanian Investment Centre was created in 1995 as a one-stop shop for foreign investors in order to reduce bureaucracy and fast-track economic transactions.

5 Interview with a land expert at Ardhi University, Dar es Salaam, 9 April 2015.

6 Interview with a land lawyer and lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam, 29 April 2014.

7 Interview with a land officer of the KDC, Kisarwe, 10 June 2015.

8 At the village level, land questions are discussed by a set of actors and institutions, including the elected village council, the land committee, the Village Chairman, the impartial Village Executive Officer, and the village assembly. Villages should therefore not be considered as a homogenous level of governance, but rather as a host of constant negotiations and contention. A deeper analysis of institutional dynamics regarding land allocation in the case of SBF is, however, beyond the scope of this article.

9 Group discussion with six members of the ‘task force’ for land compensation, composed of 11 village representatives, Marumbo village, 6 May 2014.

10 Interview with a land officer of the KDC, Kisarawe, 11 April 2015.

11 Interview with a project manager from Mtanga, Kisarawe, 25 June 2015.

12 Interview with the head of the planning department at the KDC, Kisarawe, 16 June 2015.

13 Interview with the head of the agriculture and land rights department of ActionAid Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, 17 July 2015.

14 See Zirulnick (2015).

15 As shown by Youjin B. Chung, the definition of general land in the land laws is ambiguous. It is defined as all public land that is not reserved land or village land, including urban and peri-urban land. But the Land Act of 1999 states that it also includes unoccupied or unused village land that is not clearly defined and open to interpretation (Chung, 2019).

16 The land was offered to the government of Zanzibar during the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1974. The land at RAZABA (about 28,000 hectares) was used for cattle until the beginning of the 1990s. During the following decade, members of the central government considered the land unused and gave the green light for its acquisition by SEKAB/AEE.

17 The BEE project is based on an economic approach, whereby farmers of surrounding communities and villages enter into a contractual agreement with the company to plant and harvest sugarcane. Outgrower schemes have been discussed in the literature as an alternative to land acquisition since the farmers do not cede their land rights.

18 Interview with the head of the agriculture department of the BDC, Bagamoyo, 27 July 2015.

19 Interview with the director of AEE, Dar es Salaam, 21 April 2015.

20 The Tanzanian government drafted a new land policy in 2016, but it is yet to be formalised and adopted.

21 This information stems from an e-mail exchange with the former Minister of Lands, 24 April 2017.

22 Interview with a land lawyer and expert, Dar es Salaam, 31 July 2015.

23 Interview with the director of AEE, Dar es Salaam, 21 April 2015.

24 The sugar cane project of AEE was built with divers financial resources: 500 million US dollars were provided by the company, 100 million by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, 30 million by the African Development Bank, and 14 million by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Sina Schlimmer, “Caught in the Web of Bureaucracy? How ‘Failed’ Land Deals Shape the State in Tanzania”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 12.1 | 2020, Online since 14 July 2020, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sina Schlimmer

Sina Schlimmer is a specialist in urban governance and land at the African Studies Centre of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) in Paris, France. In her PhD thesis, Sina analysed the political dynamics of large-scale land deals in Tanzania. Through her postdoc at Sciences Po Bordeaux, she became a specialist in urban land markets in East Africa. Sina has worked for UN-Habitat in Nairobi, Kenya, where she produced socially useful and action-oriented research.

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