At a jubilant rally one recent evening in the town of Geita, in northwestern Tanzania, Tundu Lissu sang along to Bob Marley’s “One Love” as he looked out on the sun setting over a sea of cheering supporters. The opposition firebrand is running to replace incumbent President John Magufuli in a general election later this month; he has been on the campaign trail since late August, drawing massive crowds at each stop.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve looked people in the eye,” Lissu told World Politics Review in an interview. “Everywhere I’ve gone, people are so happy. It’s unbelievable, and it’s uplifting.” He returned home this summer after three years in exile, part of which was spent recovering after unidentified gunmen shot him 16 times in 2017, in what he suspects was an assassination attempt.
Last Friday, however, the National Electoral Commission suspended his campaign for seven days, accusing Lissu of using “seditious language” and violating election rules. It’s the latest blow to the opposition, with the Oct. 28 elections fast approaching.
Magufuli, of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, appears determined to curtail his opponents’ ability to participate in a free and fair vote. Dozens of opposition hopefuls at the municipal and parliamentary level were disqualified from this year’s race by the National Electoral Commission in August, leaving the ruling party running unopposed in certain areas of the country.
“The harassment is continuous, it is meticulous, it is down to the smallest detail,” said Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Lissu, who also defends the popstar-turned-presidential-candidate Bobi Wine in Uganda.
Even campaign posters have been weaponized by the government, which recently enacted a new tax on posting promotional materials, making it too expensive for the opposition to print and share posters, placards and fliers. “A political party should not be subjected to paying taxes on posters,” said Zitto Kabwe, head of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency party, or ACT-Wazalendo. “Posters are a public service, where citizens get a chance to know the candidates.”
Kabwe’s party has not been spared in the recent crackdown. Three ACT-Wazalendo members were arrested last month, and while two have since been released, the party’s social media officer, Dotto Rangimoto, remains in police custody for allegedly committing cybercrimes. And according to Human Rights Watch, more than a dozen government critics have been arrested since mid-June.
Violence has also increased as elections draw closer. Police teargassed Lissu’s convoy as he traveled to a rally last week, firing chemicals into the crowd for some 15 minutes. And a disturbing video shared on social media shows people bleeding after apparently having been beaten with sticks in clashes with security forces.
Neither Magufuli’s office nor the electoral commission responded to emails from World Politics Review requesting comment on irregularities in the campaign process, and restrictions imposed on the opposition.
Undeterred by recent attacks, Lissu’s CHADEMA party and ACT-Wazalendo are currently in talks to unite behind Lissu ahead of Election Day. CHADEMA has already endorsed ACT-Wazalendo’s Seif Shariff Hamad, who is running for president of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago in a concurrent election. But authorities say these efforts could violate the rules. In a recent statement to the press, the deputy registrar for political parties, Sisty Nyahoza, said the law forbids political parties from forming coalitions this late in the election season.
With Lissu’s campaign on hold, and the opposition still negotiating about forging a united front, the next steps in this high-stakes vote are unclear. Some observers fear that a second term for Magufuli would further erode Tanzania’s democratic norms and institutions. Already, the speaker of the National Assembly, Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s Job Ndugai, has stated he will move to abolish presidential terms limits if Magufuli wins reelection.
“I grew up in a fairly peaceful country. I took that for granted. Every time you feel this possibly won’t get worse, it gets worse.”
Tanzania, once a beacon of stability and democratic aspirations in East Africa, has become increasingly autocratic since Magufuli was elected president in 2015. Nicknamed “the bulldozer” during his days as the minister of public works, Magufuli won support among Tanzanians by promising to nationalize the country’s mining sector and spur infrastructure projects. As president, he has been ruthless in his suppression of dissent.
According to Thabit Jacob, a research fellow at Roskilde University in Denmark who studies politics and extractive industries in African states, Magufuli portrays support for his economic agenda as a key part of Tanzania’s national identity. “Anyone who is critical of his resource nationalism approach is seen as anti-state [and] not patriotic enough,” Jacob told WPR. The ruling party uses similar tactics to tar its critics, including journalists.
In June, the civil society organizations CIVICUS, based in Johannesburg, and DefendDefenders, headquartered in Kampala, made a joint statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council warning of an escalating clampdown on freedom of expression in Tanzania under Magufuli. Sylvia Mbataru, a researcher with CIVICUS, warned in an interview that the government’s legal actions against lawyers and activists means that “people begin to see them not as human rights actors, but as criminals who are just a pain to the government.”
The repressive environment also makes it difficult to hold the government accountable for its response to COVID-19. Since late April, Magufuli’s administration has not released any data about the spread of the coronavirus in Tanzania, maintaining that the country has rid itself of COVID-19 though prayer. It’s hard to challenge that official line for fear of retribution, and newspapers and television stations have been sanctioned for sharing warnings about the virus.
“I grew up in a fairly peaceful country,” said Mwanahamisi Singano, a Tanzanian women’s rights advocate. “I took that for granted,” she added. “Every time you feel this possibly won’t get worse, it gets worse.”
With fears of a rigged vote looming, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, last week introduced a resolution in Congress calling for free and fair elections in Tanzania. “This is a critical moment in history and democratic backsliding must be called out wherever we see it,” she said in a statement. Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also condemned the suspension of Lissu’s campaign.
Washington’s newly appointed ambassador to Tanzania, Donald J. Wright, echoed these concerns on Twitter, urging all parties to commit to a free and fair election process. The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam said it would “consider consequences” for those involved in election-related violence or “undermining the democratic process.”
Magufuli already promised transparency during a June speech to legislators, but recent events undermine the credibility of that vow. In addition to the barriers facing the opposition, multiple local NGOs, with a track record of monitoring elections, have also been barred from observing this year’s vote.
“To determine whether an election is free and fair, we don’t just wait until Oct. 28, when people have voted and we wait for the counting,” said Fatma Karume, a prominent lawyer who was recently sacked from her private practice job for political activism and subsequently disbarred. “We have to look at what’s happened throughout the process.”
CHADEMA leaders last weekend announced plans to challenge the electoral commission’s suspension order against Lissu in court. With media activity and polling restricted, it is difficult to gauge public opinion about the race, but Lissu is heartened by the support he has seen at his rallies. Still, there is ample cause for concern. On Tuesday, heavily armed police blocked Lissu’s car as he traveled to attend an internal meeting.
“I fear more police violence in the days and weeks ahead,” Lissu said. “The fear of violence in this election is much greater than in previous elections, and the reason is simple. We are winning. They know it and we know it.”
This article was published by World Politics Review.