Tanzania is not ready for a free and fair election


When President John Magufuli took office in 2015, he came to power on a promise to root out corruption. A series of eye-catching measures ensued, earning him the status of a model for other leaders, both within Tanzania and across the African continent.

Immediately, he cut unnecessary government expenditure, such as government officials’ foreign travel, and redirected the funds towards delivering essential public services. Tanzanians were highly expectant as they were tired of the endemic corruption that had stunted the country’s progress for decades.

But they were in for a huge surprise.

Since this early promise, his tenure has seen the gradual and systematic fall of the country’s democratic credentials in which opposition politicians have been on the receiving end of brutal violence, unfair prosecution and public humiliation. Magufuli has overseen a highly polarised political environment in which the ruling party’s dominance has been forced upon Tanzanian politics through unfair rules of engagement.

A case in point was the ban on public political rallies in June 2016, barely a year after he assumed office. He argued that people should be left alone to focus on “building the country”, and political leaders should wait for the next election in 2020 to hold rallies.

Fast forward to 2020, political rallies remain banned. Less than a month before the impending general elections, we are worried that the uneven electoral playing field will compromise the outcome of the process.

According to Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, the National Chairperson of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency, ACT Wazalendo:

“The current landscape does not bode well for the upcoming elections. The nation is fractured, our people are suffering and the country’s institutions are rudderless. This is especially true of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC), both of which are being run in a way that does not inspire confidence for October.”

No country for independent media or civil society

Media and civil society are gallantly fighting for survival in what is an extremely difficult environment characterised by the instrumentalisation of the legal system to stifle dissent.

The Cyber Crimes Act (2015) for example, has been used to clamp down on politically active citizens including the prosecution of journalists for social media posts. The Media Services Act (2016) has been the main tool in the banning of newspapers in the past fours years. The Online Content regulations (2018, 2020), ostensibly presented as a cybersecurity law, have been instrumental in severely suppressing the emergence and growth of online media including radio and TV broadcasts.

This systematic process of decimating the media also involves charging extremely hefty fines and prolonged suspensions for airing content deemed unapproved or unacceptable by the state. The independent media is thus being suffocated in Tanzania.

On June 23, 2020, the government issued an order banning the print and distribution of Tanzania Daima newspaper within and outside Tanzania, accusing it of breaching the law and professional ethics. The Tanzania Daima had already been temporarily banned before (2017) on spurious charges of publishing “falsehoods”. On 7 July, 2020, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) suspended Kwanza TV, an online television network, for 11 months for allegedly generating and disseminating “biased, misleading and disruptive content”.

The targeting of civil society should also be seen in the same light of neutralising alternative voices and this has been mainly through the enactment of a litany of amendments to NGO laws in June 2019. This repressive legislation has made it increasingly difficult for civil society to operate freely, effectively and efficiently. Civil society organisations involved in election monitoring and observation now operate under new restrictions.

In June 2020, the then National Electoral Commission published the list of accredited human rights organisations in the country.

Two respected organisations, the Legal and Human Rights Centre and the Tanzania Episcopal Conference – that have been observing Tanzanian elections since the return of multiparty politics in 1995 – were missing from the list. International observers, often the vital cog in the oversight of problematic electoral processes in Africa, have essentially been locked out of the 2020 election calendar through a complex and opaque accreditation process. Without credible local, regional and international observers, the Tanzania election appears to be a train wreck in the making.

Political violence: new election, old tools

Following the toxic human rights climate that has been fostered by the democractic governance deficit in Tanzania, politically motivated physical violence is being visited on targeted political activists.

On 8 August 2020, Freeman Mbowe, a Member of Parliament and Chadema’s national chairperson was attacked by unknown assailants. The opposition party believes this was politically motivated as there has been a sustained onslaught on the opposition party including the numerous assassination attempts on Chadema’s presidential candidate Tundu Lissu.

Terrorising political opponents including civil society actors has had the effect of instilling fear, the main aim of which is to ensure that either the government’s opponents – real or perceived – are cowed into submission or simply desert the political theatre.

On 24 June, 2020, for example, the Registrar of Non-governmental Organisations suspended the Inclusive Development for Citizens (IDC-Tanzania), a local organisation dealing with issues of inclusion for the excluded, for allegedly violating the law guiding the operations of NGOs in Tanzania.

Even religious personalities participating in conscientising the population and galvanising citizen participation have not been spared. On 11 July, 2020, the secretary of the Islamic Council in Tanzania Sheikh Ponda Issa Ponda was arrested. It appears the tactic of criminalising free, especially critical speech has been fully deployed ahead of the election.

Even more worryingly, it is state institutions that are being weaponised in this endeavour. For example, on Monday 10 August 2020, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Simon Sirro warned politicians against what he called “the use of inflammatory language that can incite violence during this election period”.

While this might sound like a genuine and legitimate law and order call, these are the kind of blanket statements used to generally characterise all critical speech as an incitement to violence. The overall effect is that in an election season, where politicking and campaign messaging dominates the news cycle, policing political speech can have deleterious effects on the freeness and fairness of an election.

This happens in two major ways: opposition politicians are arrested on trumped-up charges of inciting political violence, which derails campaigns in significant ways. At the same time, politicians are forced into self-censorship for fear of prosecution and/or persecution. Unlawful detention, torture, death threats and various forms of harassment such as what happened to the opposition Chadema party’s secretary for Ruangwa constituency Mr Claudio Chilemba, become commonplace.

Chilemba was warned that he would be on the receiving end of more such treatment “if he continued his efforts in ensuring an opposition candidate stood in Ruangwa constituency”. This is certainly not an isolated incident. Even the party’s presidential candidate, Tundu Lissu, has not been spared. On 14 August 2020, while in Hai district, Kilimanjaro region where he had gone to find guarantors for his race for president, Lissu was attacked by a mob linked to Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

There are also reports of opposition candidates being disqualified while others are suddenly having their immigration status questioned in what appears to be a bid to weaken the opposition’s electoral field.

Political ‘lawfare’: the legalisation of an uneven electoral field

Perhaps the most direct attack on the integrity of the electoral process has come from the passing of legislation like the controversial amendments to the Political Party Act on 29 January, 2019 by the Tanzanian parliament. These amendments were forced through by the majority CCM party despite strong but ultimately futile protests by opposition parties. The criticism stemmed from the fact that the amendments gave sweeping powers to the registrar of political parties over the parties.

On 1 April, 2020 the new Election Expenses Act was added to the books in Tanzania. This law takes control of the use of funds by candidates at the nomination, campaign and election stages of the election process.

All would be well if these laws and law enforcement relating to the electoral process applied to all political parties in Tanzania. Instead, they are apparently selectively applied or, to be more specific, the book is only thrown at the opposition and never the ruling party. A good example can be seen in the case where complaints raised by opposition members against their CCM counterparts were not approved, yet numerous objections raised by the latter against the former were upheld. This has led to the disqualification of 53 candidates for Chadema and 76 candidates for ACT Wazalendo, respectively.

This is of course the harvest emanating from capture of the state and its institutions, resulting in the wholesale conflation of party, state and government. In addition, the independence of the NEC remains questionable given that the President hand picks all the chairpersons, commissioners and directors of elections.

In conclusion, it can be argued with great plausibility that any fair and objective analysis on the preparedness, readiness and willingness of the Tanzanian authorities in delivering a credible election is next to nil. By deploying both hardware (physical violence) and software (legislation), Tanzania under Magufuli has set the east African nation many steps back when it comes to governance in general and electoral integrity in particular. Tanzania is headed for a disputed election.

* Maverick Citizen is aware of the writer’s identity but is not disclosing it to protect their safety.

This article was published by Daily Maverick.

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