Three years after he survived being shot 16 times in an assassination attempt, the Tanzanian opposition figure Tundu Lissu flew home from exile on Monday to campaign against the country’s strongman.
“I came back from the dead,” Mr Lissu, told The Telegraph before his flight from Europe to Dar-es-Salaam. “Those who tried to kill me are still at large. My life is at risk, but I’m going all the same.”
When President John Magufuli came to power in the East Africa nation in 2015, Mr Lissu, a human rights lawyer and member of parliament, became one of his fiercest and most vocal opponents.
The government tried to shut Mr Lissu up. But despite being arrested half a dozen times and charging him with sedition, the lawyer refused to be silent in the face of what he saw as the wholesale rollback of Tanzanian democracy.
In September 2017, unknown gunmen ambushed Mr Lissu in the car park of his parliamentary residence in the capital, Dodoma. The guards who usually protected the complex were curiously absent and the gunmen sprayed Mr Lissu’s car with thirty Kalashnikov rounds.
The attack left the MP near dead in a coma. His Chadema political party rushed him out of the country to Kenya and on to Belgium for medical treatment.
Now after 24 operations, the 52-year-old says he is back in fighting form and is ready to compete in Tanzania’s presidential elections in October against Mr Magufuli.
“There is still a bullet lodged in my back near my spine, and after all the surgery my right leg is now seven centimetres shorter…but other than that I am in good health,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, Mr Lissu was greeted like a hero by hundreds of supporters at Dar-es-Salaam’s international airport. As he limped out of airport gates beaming at the crowds, his supporters chanted “President, President.”
No one has ever been prosecuted for the attack on Mr Lissu. Instead, the CCTV footage from the apartment complex was reportedly erased.
The Tanzanian parliament launched an official enquiry into the assassination attempt but none of the findings have been published. Instead, Mr Lissu was stripped of his seat in parliament for absenteeism.
Rights activists say that Mr Lissu has taken an enormous risk going back home and he has asked the government to guarantee his safety.
“The security forces have not even investigated the attack on him. The only thing stopping the guys who shot him last time finishing what they started is the international attention,” says Daniel El-Noshokaty from KAS, a German foundation working with opposition politicians around the world.
Tanzania was once one of the most promising democracies in East Africa. But the country of 59 million has seen a major decline in civil liberties since Mr Magufuli came to power five years ago.
Political rallies have been banned, opposition MPs have been locked up and journalists have been imprisoned and tortured.
In May, Idris Sultan, a Tanzanian comedian, filmed a short video of himself laughing at an old picture of Mr Magufuli in a baggy suit. He was then arrested for allegedly “cyber-bullying” the President.
Over the last few months, Mr Magufuli has worried neighbouring states by downplaying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, telling his citizens that if they prayed enough, they would be immune to the ‘satanic’ virus.
The government has not released any new data on coronavirus cases since April after the president accused the national laboratory of sabotage. Instead, Mr Magufuli has declared his country coronavirus-free.
However, one doctor in Dar-es-Salaam, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told The Telegraph, that people were scared to speak out about the virus or visit hospitals if they developed symptoms because the government might make them disappear.
“If the deterioration of basic human rights continues, Tanzania will become a dictatorship,” says Mr El-Noshokaty.
It is unlikely that Chadema will come out well in October’s election.
“We are not expecting a free and fair election,” says Mr Lissu. However, Mr Lissu says he intends to shake the foundations of the Tanzanian ruling party.
“President Magufuli fears a contest. He is vulnerable.”
This article was published by The Telegraph.