A new lodestar for Africa?

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania: The wheels seem to spin in the sand as we hurtle down the bush track mile after mile from Mtwara, a small town on the border of Tanzania and Mozambique. The land is parched, waiting desperately for the rains. In the villages we pass, little thatched houses give way to fields stripped bare of their meager produce. This is truly one of the poorest backwaters of this very poor country.

Suddenly there is a clearing and in it, well, what? The set for a James Bond film? Or a secret Tanzanian missile site, perhaps rented out to the encroaching Chinese-African empire?

The new president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, jumps out of our convoy's lead car and briskly walks up to a white man in a white helmet and grabs his hand. Soon we are all ensconced in helmets and goggles and led past rows of large windowless containers to view a space-age machine that drives a pipe deep into the ground. A burly Canadian tells me he works 28 days - 12 hours a day, seven days a week - and then gets a free ticket home for 28 days off.

We have arrived at the saving grace of Tanzania's mounting energy crisis. Tanzania has depended on plenty of rain, full lakes and cheap hydroelectric power, but the recent drought depleted the lakes and knocked nearly two percentage points off Tanzania's once rapid rate of growth. God works in mysterious ways, however. Underneath these coastal sands a Canadian company, Artumas, last year discovered gas - enough to provide electricity to Mtwara for 800 years - and more is likely to be found.

Before Christmas, Mtwara and nearby Lindi will have the gas flowing into the turbines and the electricity into their streets, factories and homes. The nearby villages will also be lit up. There will be no repeating the mistakes that have plagued Nigeria's oil-rich delta region, where the locals have been bypassed.

Another field has been found to the north and is starting to power the capital, Dar es Salaam. Gas is going to save Tanzania's economy and by next year its growth should be restored to last year's 7 percent. The president tells me he believes it can go to 8 percent, and he yearns for 10 percent.

When I was here two years ago Western diplomats thought 7 percent was a pipe dream. But after the country's stellar performance last year they have swallowed their doubts. As Lelde Schmitz, the International Monetary Fund's Tanzania chief, told me, once they get over this energy hump, "Why not more than 7 percent?"

Even at 7 percent, Tanzania could achieve the United Nations millennium goals: cutting infant mortality by half and putting 10 years on life spans within a decade.

Kikwete won the presidency a year ago, after a bruising party primary and then an open general election (albeit against an opposition party that is only just finding its stride). Before him presided Julius Nyerere, Tanzania's founding father and benign semidictator, who ruined the economy with his radical socialist ideas but knitted the diverse tribes of Tanzania into a peaceful whole.

Later came Nyerere's former press secretary, Benjamin Mkapa, who set Tanzania on the path to political and economic reform, producing handsome economic growth, a primary school in every village and a more open political system.

If Nyerere was Tanzania's headmaster and Mkapa was its management guru, Kikwete is its font of youthful energy - but a thoughtful one. He is Africa's Bill Clinton - driven by ideas, charismatic, clear minded, a communicator who likes nothing more than to step into a crowd and parley with it. A moderate Muslim in a dangerous neighborhood, he has become a favorite of President George W. Bush who has granted him the kind of access once reserved solely for Africa's big economic powers, Nigeria and South Africa.

The gas field behind us, we slog for three days along dusty, potholed back roads, deep into the country. In every village, the crowd is waiting, in every third village Kikwete stops, climbs on top of his car and - using the state-of-the-art sound truck that accompanies us - ad libs words of encouragement. He cracks jokes about condoms, makes them laugh furiously and outlines a future that visibly whets their appetites.

In the evening, when the convoy stops, we eat together informally and chat to the president. Everything seems possible. Tanzania, and maybe Africa too, has found its human lodestar.

I have been covering Africa for 40 years. I have never been so impressed.

Jonathan Power writes on foreign affairs.

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