Tanzania’s Tundu Lissu defies danger to challenge Magufuli in October’s presidential election


The hero’s welcome which Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu has been receiving since coming home from exile three weeks ago is both good and bad for him and the wider opposition.

Good because it bodes well for his chances of winning the October presidential election as candidate for the main Chadema opposition party. Bad because the evidence of a strong surge of support may provoke the incumbent president, John Magufuli, and his CCM party administration to use undemocratic means to block him.

It already seems to have begun doing so. Last Thursday night, the eve of his arrival to campaign in the north-east town of Arusha, Chadema’s regional headquarters in the town were firebombed and destroyed, he said.

On Friday in nearby Kilimanjaro, his entourage was attacked by stone-throwing thugs while he was holding a meeting at Chadema’s office. “And the police did not intervene,” he told Daily Maverick in a telephone interview.

“It’s a very clear signal that we are going to have a very difficult, possibly very violent campaign. Because these people have nothing else but violence and intimidation and this kind of disruptive and violent conduct.”

This was not new, though.

“My national chairman is hobbling around with a broken foot. Several members of our Parliament have been beaten up, jailed. Members and leaders have been killed. Journalists have disappeared.”

Shot 16 times

And on 7 September 2017, Lissu, a lawyer and member of Parliament, was shot 16 times in his car in the parking lot of his parliamentary residence in the capital Dodoma.

He received emergency treatment in Dodoma before being airlifted to hospital in Nairobi and then to Belgium for a series of operations and then a long recuperation.

On 27 July 2020, Lissu returned, undeterred, to Tanzania to contest the elections.

This “unrelenting war on us which should have crushed us completely. Instead it didn’t, we are better organised today than we were five years ago when he took over.”

But he is still concerned about his safety, in part because no one has been arrested for the attempt on his life and the police have “stated openly that they don’t even have a suspect. And for all intents and purposes, it’s very clear these were state operatives, protected by the state.”

Lissu said he had hired private security for himself and his entourage because the police chief and head of intelligence had ignored his request for state security even though the law stipulates that once nominated as a presidential candidate he is entitled to police protection around the clock at the cost of the police force.

And it must be worrying to Magufuli that the reception Tundu has been getting on the campaign trail over the last fortnight “has been massive. It has been incredible. I don’t want to compare it with Madiba in 1990 in South Africa but it is a Tanzania equivalent, to be honest.

“People are just sick and tired of what has gone on for five long years. They’re just ready for change.”


He also said that there had been a “total blackout” of his campaign from the media, apart from some social media and the odd newspaper.

Journalists seem scared to cover Lissu because of the increasingly repressive Magufuli administration. And, it seems, the administration is scared of him.

“Because I wasn’t supposed to live, let alone be campaigning for the presidency. I was supposed to be dead. I did not die. And I was not supposed to come back home, given all that happened. I came back.

“And therefore they are running scared. And for good reason. I don’t want to disrespect anybody, but I represent the most serious challenge to Magufuli’s hold on power, compared to any other candidate.”

Apart from violence or even assassination, the fear of being disqualified from the election, on 25 August, nomination day, is also “ a major concern”.

He says the Magufuli regime showed its hand in the local elections last year when over 96% of Chadema’s candidates were disqualified.

“And if he could get away with that last year, he will try to do it this year.”

“Secondly, he controls the electoral commission almost totally.” Magufuli appoints not only its chairperson, its commissioners and its chief executive officer, but also all returning officers except those on semi-autonomous Zanzibar.

“Therefore, all the people who are running the election are his personal appointees. And he has said clearly, openly, on national television, that he cannot give them fat salaries, provide them with vehicles and then allow them to declare political opponents victors in the forthcoming elections.

“So we don’t expect to be dealt an even hand at all by the national electoral commission… So I am very concerned about disqualification because that’s the only thing that he has left.”

If he is disqualified, he would call for nationwide protests and would urge the international community to intervene with whatever leverage they had against the government, including diplomatic, economic and financial measures.

Some analysts, however, don’t give the opposition much of a chance even in a fair fight. They say Magufuli is too formidable an opponent because most voters don’t really care that he is cracking down on his political opponents. They like him for bullying corrupt and incompetent civil servants and foreign investors whom he accuses of cheating Tanzanians.

Lissu scoffs, saying “this so-called formidable support is just manufactured support” based on the monopoly Magufuli enjoys in the media.

And now that the opposition can operate with a little more freedom during the elections… “we have seen a different Tanzania from what we have seen in the last five years”.

The main plank of his election campaign is the economy, which he says “Magufuli has basically destroyed… In five years he has contracted more foreign debt than in the 10 years of the Kikwete administration. Kikwete left a foreign debt of around $8/9-billion. Magufuli is going into $19-billion.

Killing the private sector

“All these fancy projects of his, these white elephants, have basically been procured by an orgy of foreign borrowing. He has not paid, this I get from very credible sources, in five years, any local contractor for goods and services offered.”

This is killing the private sector, as are the “very draconian tax measures… People are being slapped with tax bills that are so huge they are being bankrupted.

“Business people have been detained, charged with horrendous criminal offences which are not bailable. And they are being told, ‘You pay up and we release you or you don’t pay up and you rot in jail. Because we have no intention of prosecuting the cases.’

“Foreign investors have all disappeared,” he adds, because Magufuli’s government has violated the protections they should enjoy under Tanzanian law and the bilateral investment treaties it has signed with other governments.

“And we have five years in which employees in both the private and public sectors have not been paid a penny in statutory salary increments.”

Last year the government confiscated crops in the south of the country from farmers who are now “completely impoverished,” he says.

“People are up in arms” about the “disaster” which Magufuli’s policies have made of their economy.

“We are basically on the verge of being another Zimbabwe.”

And he adds that the public service is insecure as Magufuli “hires and fires as he wishes in total disregard of the law. There is no professionalism.”

He dismisses the World Bank’s promotion of Tanzania last month, from low income to lower-middle-income status, saying it is based on “discredited statistics,” as the country’s statistics law prohibits any independent collection, analysis and dissemination of economic statistics.

“A middle-income country should be translated into food on people’s tables, should be reflected in people’s paychecks. They’re not fooling anybody with these fancy figures.”

Lissu says the World Bank has historically funded failures like the Mobutu regime… because “they need to disperse funds and to do so they have to do a bit of spinning to justify their continued lending to the government.

“How can you say the economy is performing well when tourism has largely collapsed because of Covid-19? We have more companies closing down voluntarily. These are voluntary winding ups. Investment has dropped by over 50% in five years. “

Magufuli’s “white elephants”, “all being paid for by external borrowing”, include a hydro-electric project in the Selous game reserve, the standard gauge railway that is being built to link Tanzania to neighbouring countries as well as new aircraft for Air Tanzania.

The government is saying nothing about what these projects cost and where the money is coming from and no debate about whether they are really needed, he says. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner which the government recently bought is designed for intercontinental flights, yet it is being used to fly the short hops from Dar es Salaam via Kilimanjaro to Mwanza on Lake Victoria.

The previous two administrations had already invested “massively” in infrastructure, especially in upgrading highways, so no more was needed to stimulate the economy.

A conduit for massive corruption

“These large projects are useful for only one thing. These white elephants are a conduit for massive corruption.”

Nonetheless, analysts say it is vital for the opposition to unite behind single candidates against Magufuli and the CCM, at the presidential and parliamentary levels.

Yet, it seems discussions Chadema is having with the next-biggest opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, about such collaboration, are not going well. These include the possibility of either Lissu or ACT Wazalendo’s presidential candidate, former foreign minister Bernard Membe, standing back for the other.

Lissu says they are still talking, but he warns of a “huge legal trap” which he says the Magufuli administration set for the opposition last year with an amendment to the political parties law. It says any coalition by any political parties must be approved by the registrar of political parties – “an appointee of President Magufuli”.

This means if parties enter a coalition agreement they would have to reveal all their strategies and tactics to this registrar who would surely pass them on to Magufuli and the CCM – “and then he has the power to block you”.

“But we have not stopped looking at ways of working together. We realise this is a make or break election. It’s probably the most consequential election in our history.

“We know it’s going to be war on the opposition. And therefore the need for unity, for working together is without any doubt. But we have to be careful.”

“Basically, we’ll look at areas where we can ask our voters to vote strategically,” he said. Essentially, he explained, ACT Wazalendo was stronger on Zanzibar and its surrounding islands, while Chadema was stronger on the mainland.

This was mainly because most of the supporters of the Civic United Front (CUF), which had always been very strong on Zanzibar, had switched to ACT-Wazalendo after the CUF was taken over by the security forces in the wake of the shambolic 2015 poll.

“The truth is that ACT is Civic United Front in a new colour. And an odd new face here and there.

“We want them to do very well in the Isles. We’ll support them in the Isles. But if you look at mainland Tanzania, Chadema is the strongest opposition party by far. So it is not difficult to tell the broad pattern of any co-operation we might have.”

Lissu said he “massively” respected Membe, but the problem was that he was not contesting the Zanzibari presidency but the Union presidency where “the balance of power in this election clearly points to a presidential candidate in my person”.

There has been speculation that if Tundu were disqualified by the electoral commission on nomination day, 25 August, Membe would be put forward as the main opposition candidate.

Would Lissu then back Membe?

“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we reach it. I don’t want to give away my position too early.”

A very dangerous pipe dream

But, he warned, “There would be no automatic shift in support from Tundu Lissu to Bernard Membe. And therefore this idea that some elements are harbouring that ACT would benefit from my disqualification is a very dangerous pipe dream.”

In the parliamentary elections, ACT-Wazalendo would also do very well in Zanzibar and in a handful of mainland constituencies, 10 or less, he said. For the rest, in over 95% of mainland constituencies, the contest would be between Chadema and CCM.

And there, even if ACT fielded candidates side by side with Chadema candidates, it would not hurt Chadema’s chances, he said. This was not “electoral braggadocio” but an assessment based on the 2015 elections where he said CUF’s participation in a coalition with Chadema had boosted its elected seats from two or three to 11.

“They will be our allies. I cannot see them having any chance on their own.”

He also indicated he might challenge Magufuli’s nomination on 25 August, on the grounds that he had violated electoral law by “bribing voters openly everywhere he’s gone since he was nominated by his party”.

In light of his comparison between his own return from exile last month and Nelson Mandela’s return from jail in 2020, Daily Maverick asked Lissu if he regarded himself as a Tanzanian Mandela.

He declined the sobriquet, noting that he had not spent 27 years in jail, nor did he have Mandela’s international stature.

“I’m not a Madiba by any measure. I’m only saying the people of Tanzania know and they are showing it, that this particular political figure has suffered more than any other in this country and they are responding accordingly.

“And not just suffer. I have remained very consistent in my convictions. I have remained true to my word, as it were. And the people are responding accordingly.”

This article was published by Daily Maverick.

Get Social

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon