Elections in Tanzania: A model African country slides toward dictatorship

Opposition politician Tundu Lissu only barely survived an assassination attempt in 2017. Now, he is running for president against incumbent John Magufuli, the man who likely wanted him dead.

Opposition politician Zitto Kabwe and his followers in Mtwara: The rights of Tanzanians have been gradually, and brutally, curtailed. Photo: Sergio Ramazzotti / DER SPIEGEL


The day when Tundu Lissu was supposed to die began like any other day in the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma. Shortly after 8 a.m., he ate a quick breakfast in a well-secured housing complex for parliamentarians not far from the National Assembly.

In his head, he went over the speech he planned to give later that day. The parliament’s agenda that day included a treaty on the use of a river basin on the border to Malawi. Lissu planned to criticize the government sharply, as he often did.

Tundu Lissu is one of Tanzania's best-known opposition politicians, and the most vocal critic of President John Magufuli. Not long earlier, he had called the president a pathetic petty dictator in response to his increasingly brutal curtailment of Tanzanians’ freedoms. Lissu, a stout man of 49, smiles a lot. His wife says he’s stubborn. Old college friends say he is a bookworm. Western diplomats say he’s a man you can rely on.

Three years later, he still has a clear recollection of that fateful day. He sat down next to his driver in the black Land Cruiser for the 10-minute drive to parliament. Around noon, he delivered his speech, the last statement by a member of parliament before the lunch break. His driver was waiting outside, and his housekeeper was preparing lunch at home. The air conditioning blew cool air into the car.

A white Land Cruiser and a smaller Nissan squeezed behind the heavy SUV. Lissu peered into the rear-view mirror. He had been arrested eight times since Magufuli became president.

"What have I done now?” he asked his driver, who kept braking and accelerating. The two white vehicles continued tailing them as they drove into the building complex, where the gate stood wide open. None of the armed guards who were normally present were there.

As they parked, the Nissan stopped behind them, less than 10 meters away. Four men got out of the vehicle. Lissu could see them in the rear-view mirror. He saw the Kalashnikovs. After that, all he can remember is the noise and the horror. The assault rifles were set to automatic. The bullets riddled the car. Sixteen hit him. Sixteen shots into the heart of the Tanzanian democracy.

Candidate for president Tundu Lissu and his wife Magabe: He saw the Kalashnikovs.

Photo: Sergio Ramazzotti / DER SPIEGEL


Sept. 7, 2017, is the day on which even the most optimistic observers were forced to realize that Tanzania, for many years one of East Africa’s most stable democracies, was on its way to becoming a dictatorship. The regime has been tightening the screws of oppression even more firmly ever since. Elections are now scheduled for Oct. 28, and it is a vote that could well determine whether democracy dies in Tanzania. Or if there is still a glimmer of hope.

Showing His True Face

For years, things were going well for Tanzania, with a growing economy and a democracy that, while not flawless, was at least stable. In October 2015, John Magufuli, who is nicknamed "The Bulldozer,” won the presidential election with the promise of cleaning up corruption. The enthusiasm both within and outside the country was great, and Magufuli postured as a man of action intent of cleaning things up. He fired incompetent civil servants, launched infrastructure projects and prosecuted tax evaders. The hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo began trending on Twitter.

But soon, Magufuli began showing his true face, as members of the opposition and other critics were silenced, arrested or killed. Zitto Kabwe, head of the opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) and a friend of Lissu, says that in the three provinces where he has commissioned investigations, nearly 400 opponents of the regime have disappeared. In late January of this year, a parliamentarian for the ruling party called for Kabwe, whose actions he dubbed "treasonous,” to be killed.

In June 2016, Magufuli placed a blanket ban on political parties organizing political activities and rallies, and there have been repeated investigations and trials targeting opposition party leaders. In November 2019, around 95 percent of the opposition candidates were excluded from local elections, allegedly because of improperly filled-out forms.

In June 2020, Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of Chadema, the biggest opposition party and also the one to which Lissu belongs, was attacked. The perpetrators broke his leg and ordered him to stop criticizing the president.

President John Magufuli: "It's a dictator's playbook." Photo: AP


Newspapers and television stations have been repeatedly shut down while critical journalists are arrested and tortured. They can face up to three years in prison for disseminating information that the government claims is false. Foreign journalists with official accreditation are assigned a government minder to keep tabs on them, just as they are in places like Syria and North Korea, and they risk arrest if they enter the country as tourists. When Magufuli took office in 2015, the country ranked 75th in the world in the press freedom rankings. Now the country is in 124th place. Rarely has a country fallen so quickly in the rankings.

"Welcome to the land without corona,” Lissu says in greeting on a hot evening in October. He is standing in the door of his house in Tegeta, a suburb of Dar es Salaam, the country's economic capital. In June, Magufuli’s slipping grasp on reality became clear to people around the world when the president announced that the coronavirus had been eradicated in the country through the power of Tanzanians’ prayer.

European diplomats believe the country could now be close to herd immunity, with coronavirus infections apparently having peaked in the country back in April. Like many African countries, Tanzania appears to have escaped the virus without mass deaths, in part due to a young population that lives largely rurally. But there are no figures to back that up. Magufuli, who spent months hiding out in his home village, was lucky.

A Kind of Martyr

Lissu is sitting in front of his house on a plastic chair. He lives in a middle-class neighborhood known for its cement factory. A scrap yard is located around the corner, and there's a shack across the street selling beer and liquor. Goats walk along the streets. Lissu is feeling the strains of the election campaign, with aching pains in his legs, back and arms, where bullets struck. But he is smiling nonetheless.

It was the assassination attempt that made Lissu run for president. Magufuli himself officially condemned the attack, but it is clear to Lissu that the president’s henchmen committed the crime. And it was the attack that made Lissu a potentially more dangerous opponent to Magufuli, a kind of martyr even.

In traffic in Dar es Salaam. Photo: Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero


Back then, in September 2017, he says, his driver took him to the hospital in the car of a parliamentary colleague’s housekeeper. He lost consciousness when they arrived at the hospital. The government offered to fly him to Dar es Salaam to a better hospital. "To let me die on the plane,” Lissu now says. His party leader arranged a different flight, and he emerged from his coma six days later in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

It marked the beginning of months of suffering and pain. He experienced multiple organ failures and cardiac arrest, and had to undergo 17 operations, including five on his stomach alone. Lissu says the doctors removed seven bullets from his digestive tract. His recovery was accompanied by the rumbling of two large dialysis machines to the left and right of his bed. He spent four months in a hospital in Nairobi, and 11 more in the Leuven University Hospitals in Belgium.

One bullet is still lodged beneath his spine, his right shoe has a heel that is about five centimeters high, and he drags his leg. He still can't extend his left arm. "After I woke up,” he says, "it quickly became clear that I was going to run against Magufuli.”

His growing popularity seems to be frightening to the regime. Few observers had expected that Lissu’s return after nearly three years in exile would so dramatically re-politicize society.

If there were free elections, many international experts and diplomats are confident Lissu would have a good chance of winning. But because the election will likely be neither free nor fair, it is a waiting game to see just how dramatically the result will be falsified in Magufuli’s favor. The president has made it clear that he wants to see an overwhelming victory. Given the tense atmosphere, violent clashes could erupt if the manipulations are too obvious.

The presidential candidate from the opposition party ACT, on the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, even told DER SPIEGEL that there would be violence if the election were stolen as it was five years ago. The party's youth, the candidate said, would rather die than accept another fraudulent election result.

Potential for Violence

Lissu returned from forced exile back on July 27 and has been on the campaign trail since August. Now, the situation seems to be escalating again.

On the last Monday in September, police fired tear gas at his followers during a campaign event. A short time later, he learned that the National Electoral Commission had banned his campaign appearances for the next seven days, accusing him of having violated ethical guidelines.

"I think Magufuli didn't think that he would have to run a real campaign," he says. "He thought it would be a walk in the park. And now, he suddenly has a serious rival. He is afraid. That's why they are now shifting into a higher gear." And that means violence.

"It's a dictator's playbook," he says. He's still wearing the suit he has had on all day, with suspenders over a plaid shirt. He just dropped the jacket. A group of neighbors is waiting for him in front of his home. At the moment, Lissu's workday only really comes to an end when he goes to bed.

His wife Alicia Magabe, her hair tied back, is standing upstairs next to a dark, wooden bookshelf full of legal tomes. She is an earnest woman, a lawyer like her husband. Her specialty is environmental law.

Listeners at an ACT rally in Mtwara: "Magufuli didn't think that he would have to run a real campaign." Photo: Sergio Ramazzotti / DER SPIEGEL


She is, as she puts it, his protective shield, though she is concerned that she, too, could be murdered - "to weaken him, or just merely as collateral damage," she says. A monitor behind her displays live images from 12 surveillance cameras. They met each other at university. "He's my soulmate," she says.

Last year, they took their twins out of the country. She says that a video had begun circulating on YouTube in which it was said that Lissu was speaking poorly of his country but had apparently forgotten that his children were still here. The threat wasn't particularly subtle, and the two 18-year-olds now live in the United States.

She says that Lissu's courage frightens her sometimes. "I'm worried about him, but he isn't worried about himself. It can be difficult sometimes. When he knows that he is right, then it's hard to hold him back. Not even with 16 bullets," she says with a slightly tormented smile on her face.

Lissu is sitting out in the yard. He doesn't intend to comply with the ban on campaigning. "We haven't been allowed to hold political events for almost five years. They kept saying it wasn't time for politics, but for action. And now that the time for politics has come, they keep trying to slow us down."

Deep-Seated Fear

Only a resolution by party leaders the next day gets him to comply with the ban after all. His allies are concerned about an irrevocable escalation – or of being removed from the ballot on the eve of the election.

The sun is already high in the sky when Lissu heads to Sunday morning services at the Azania Front Cathedral not far from the harbor in Dar es Salaam. Lissu is not a religious man, but he is well aware of the importance of the church in a country where the president claims that God helped the country free itself of the coronavirus. On the middle section of the triptych standing on the altar is a cheerful Jesus with one hand in greeting. The pastor speaks of forgiveness. Later, the faithful will cheer for the candidate.

Soon, it becomes clear just how deep-seated the fear in society really is. Not long after the service, photos of the DER SPIEGEL team begin making the rounds on social media channels. "Imperialists are accompanying Lissu," it says on Twitter, with panicked messages soon following from local journalists. We reporters are told that we should strongly consider leaving the country for our own safety.

The attack made Lissu a potentially more dangerous opponent to Magufuli, a martyr even.

That evening, Lissu is sitting together with a group of businessmen and friends in his yard. "We are having significant problems financing ourselves," he says. Donations from the business world, he says, are getting smaller and smaller, a function, he claims, of widespread fears of reprisals. And of a slowing economy. "Everyone is bleeding," says Lissu. "There are very few companies that are still doing well."

International investors have begun avoiding the country. The situation is uncertain, and companies find themselves faced with increasingly bizarre demands for back taxes. The London-based company Acacia Mining, for example, was suddenly confronted with a demand for $190 billion in taxes, though they ultimately reached an agreement for a payment of $300 million.

Furthermore, the once excellent relationship with China has likewise cooled noticeably. Particularly since Magufuli put a stop to a multibillion project for a deep-water port.

"There Will Be Violence"

How, though, can such developments be reconciled with the consistently excellent economic indicators that the country publishes each year? "They just make the numbers up," says Lissu. Last year, the International Monetary Fund also expressed concern about the numbers, citing "unpredictable or interventionist policies that … could lead to meager (or even negative) growth." The number of those living in extreme poverty in the country rose by 4.5 million people from 2012 to 2018.

The problem is that Magufuli would like to turn back the clock economically. He's convinced that the only way to further develop Tanzania is if the state dominates the economy. The result has been massive damage to the private sector even as he pursues ambitious infrastructure projects, including new rail lines, a huge dam in a nature preserve, more planes for Air Tanzania and more highways and bridges in and around Dar es Salaam.

The country, though, can't really afford all these projects and Tanzania's sovereign debt load has risen accordingly. Doubts in the population regarding the benefit of such projects are also on the rise.

"We have heard that they are assembling vigilante groups to intimidate opposition politicians, to kidnap them and murder them. There will be violence."

"How will a highway on the Dar es Salaam waterfront help me if I can't drive my car out of the garage in a heavy rain because the road is too muddy?" asks a businessman at the table in Lissu's yard. "We shouldn't start running before we have learned to walk."

Business leaders are extremely concerned. "Magufuli is taxing many companies to death. He is extorting money for many of his mega-projects through taxes and businessmen are being charged with money laundering, a crime for which there is no possibility of bail. Then, they are presented with horrific tax bills, which they can either pay or rot away in prison," says Lissu.

Not long later, Lissu himself is again close to imprisonment. On his way to a party meeting the next day, police detain him on the highway for more than nine hours, with heavily armed officers preventing him from continuing onward. Lissu, though, remains stubborn. After nine hours, they let him through, and the party meeting is held at night.

"The final weeks will be extremely difficult," he says the next morning, sitting at a heavy wooden table in his home. An assistant measures his blood-sugar level. "We have heard that they are assembling vigilante groups to intimidate opposition politicians, to kidnap them and murder them. There will be violence." He has just learned that two members of his party were found badly beaten and lying in a ditch.

The speaker of the national assembly has already said that once Magufuli wins the election, he intends to amend the constitution and get rid of the article limiting presidents to just two terms.

"This election," says Lissu, "is the most important one in our entire history. If Magufuli wins, democracy in Tanzania will simply disappear."

This article was published by Der Spiegel.

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