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Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete during an interview at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

"There is so much distortion," complains Jakaya Kikwete. "It's ridiculous. You see important newspapers writing nonsense."

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail last week, the 62-year-old Tanzanian President – in Canada on an official state visit – says critics are misrepresenting a planned, 480-kilometre highway that will partly traverse Serengeti National Park.

Environmentalists allege the road is designed to bring oil from landlocked Uganda to Tanzanian ports and will imperil the habitats and migratory patterns of wildebeest, zebra and other wildlife.

Not so, maintains Mr. Kikwete, holding court at Rideau Hall, residence of Canada's Governor-General.

"We are building 11,000 kilometres of new roads," he explains. "The only people left out are the people living in these remote communities. So it's a development need, not a need to bring oil from Uganda. Second, we are not building a tarmac road through the Serengeti. [And] these people live 80 kilometres away from the Serengeti, I don't see a risk to wildlife when you build 80 kilometres [away]."

The word "tarmac" is a carefully chosen adjective, because one 60-kilometre stretch of the highway is projected to run through the park. It will be a graded earth road – a concession that opposition groups contend will not prevent ecological damage.

Mr. Kikwete – president for seven years, foreign minister for 10 years before that – is considered one of Africa's senior political leaders. And, although Tanzania is one of the world's poorest countries, ranking 152 out of 187 on the United Nations' development index, it punches about its weight in geopolitical importance.

That's partly the result of Mr. Kikwete's active diplomacy. A former chairman of the African Union, he now chairs the Southern African Development Community's Organ for Politics, Defence and Security, and is a key part of the UN mission trying to end the long-summering civil war in the Congo.

For Canada, Tanzania constitutes an island of relative stability on a turbulent continent. Canadian mining (Barrick Gold and Xstrata Minerals), and oil and gas companies (Antrim Energy and Orca Exploration) are among the country's largest foreign investors. And the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) this year underwrote projects in Tanzania worth $119-million.

As a result of the state visit, Tanzania may become even more attractive.

Between official functions last week – Mr. Kikwete was guest of honour at a state dinner, planted a tree at Rideau Hall and met members of a Tanzanian diaspora community in Edmonton – the President finalized a bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement.

Although the text has not yet been released, Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, says the agreement will provide greater protection against discriminatory and arbitrary practices for Canadian companies doing business in Tanzania.

"Our government is focused on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity, and on creating the right conditions for Canadian businesses," Mr. Kikwete said. "This agreement will encourage investment and better protect Canadians" doing business there.

At the state dinner, Mr. Kikwete saluted veteran Canadian mining executive Roman Shlanka, whose former company, Sutton Resources, was among the first foreign firms to invest in the sector.

Mr. Shlanka told The Globe and Mail that his Tanzanian years had been positive, without the overhang of corruption encountered elsewhere. "They gave me development rights to two major properties without my so much as buying a cup of coffee for any politician," he said.

Far less auspicious has been experience of Toronto-based Barrick. Its principal mine, North Mara, has been the focus of violent clashes resulting in several deaths and injuries. Partly as a result, the world's largest gold miner is now negotiating to sell its four Tanzanian properties to China's state-owned National Gold Group Corp.

It's a transaction Mr. Kikwete is monitoring closely. The jobs and livelihoods of some 6,000 Tanzanians – and their wider communities – are at stake.

In private last week, the President met Barrick executive vice-president Kelvin Dushnisky. In public, he refused to impugn the company's corporate citizenship. "Only one mine has been problematic and those problems started before Barrick took it over," Mr. Kikwete said. "So to say 'Barrick is not a good corporate citizen' would not be a fair assessment. Of course, there is always room for doing more."

One sector of growing interest is energy. This past June, Tanzania nearly tripled its estimate of natural gas reserves, to almost 29 trillion cubic feet, after a series of off-shore discoveries.

The resource, Mr. Kikwete acknowledged, poses both an opportunity and a risk. On the one hand, it's a chance both to grow national wealth and to train a generation of lawyers, economists, geologists and engineers. On the other, there's the risk that it could become what the President called "a resource curse," monopolizing capital and manpower to the detriment of other parts of the economy.

"We can learn here from others," Mr. Kikwete said, "from Norway, from Malaysia, from Abu Dhabi. There are examples of how sovereign funds are created and used. And the World Bank and the British government are sending teams to help. You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

In the meantime, the surge in energy exploration is already yielding political strains – a war of words with neighbouring Malawi over ownership of oil and gas deposits believed to lie under Lake Malawi, Africa's third largest lake. Last week, Malawi raised the stakes in the dispute, cancelling talks aimed at resolution and a scheduled visit by Malawian President Joyce Banda.

The energy rift is only one of several issues that confront Mr. Kikwete. In addition to the bloody civil war in the Congo, there's been political instability on his northern border with Kenya, East Africa's largest economy. There are pirates on the coastal seas and agents of al-Qaeda on land, eager to fan the flames of Islamic fundamentalism. Major agri-corps are hungrily acquiring buying up tracts of Tanzanian land. Its valuable mining industry, worth about 3 per cent of GDP, faces a period of uncertainty, after the government raised royalties on gold and uranium revenues from 3 to 4 per cent. And rural poverty, deforestation, and the AIDS/HIV crisis – Tanzania now has the region's highest rates of cervical cancer – remain endemic.