Two of East Africa’s most influential opposition leaders, Tundu Lissu and Bobi Wine joined a panel discussion last week with The Resistance Bureau, an offshoot of the news and discussion paper, Democracy in Africa.
Tundu Lissu, a highly successful Tanzanian lawyer and proponent for democracy, leads Tanzania’s primary opposition party CHADEMA, and has been fiercely critical of President Magufuli’s dictatorial measures. Lissu has been living outside of Tanzania since 2017 after surviving an attempted assassination attempt in which he was shot 16 times and left fighting for his life. To date, no suspects have been arrested in connection with the shooting.
Bobi Wine too cuts a colourful figure in East African politics, as the leader of the People Power movement in Uganda. A former musician, Wine’s energy is electric, and he intrinsically understands the power of words, memorable hooks, and youth support.
The pair spoke to Farida Nabourema, the founder of ‘Faure Must Go’ and the Togolese Civil League, and Jeffrey Smith, an Human Rights expert and the Director of Vanguard Africa.
The panel met virtually to discuss the rise of authoritarianism in Africa and methods to champion democracy. After the recent success of the Tonse Alliance in Malawi, political commentators are now hopeful that opposition parties striving for democracy can succeed if unified and coordinated in their campaigning.
Nonetheless, Smith opened the discussion with a somber warning, calling the rise of authoritarianism in Africa a ‘pandemic’ of its own. Prior to the spread of coronavirus and the implementation of lockdown measures, presidential powers have steadily been increasing in the continent, and concerted efforts have been made by oppressive governments to silence opposition.
Lissu went one step further, claiming that President Magufuli has launched a brutal ‘war on democracy’, paid with a human cost to people’s freedoms.
He continued in his characteristic resilient tone, stating that ‘dictatorships can only be defeated if [one is] willing to take risks’. Indeed, it was at this moment that Lissu officially announced his return to Tanzania for the first time in three years to challenge President Magufuli in this year's general election. Landing in Dar es Salaam on 28th July, he will officially start his presidential campaign the same day: the day CHADEMA’s nomination process begins. Tanzania’s presidential election is only in three months’ time, and so for Lissu, the clock is audibly ticking.
Whilst there are still fears as to whether Lissu will be allowed entry into the country, Lissu argued that he has garnered enough international media attention in his unofficial exile to prevent Magufuli from outright blocking his passport. Any attempt to deny Lissu entry into the country would be seen as an admission of the government’s complicity in his assassination attempt.
Under his leadership, CHADEMA claim they will enact a ‘major economic, social, and political transformation’ in Tanzania. For the past 60 years, Tanzania has operated under a system of imperial presidency with little or no political accountability. President Magufuli also appears to be pushing for similar economic policies which led the country to economic failure between 1967-1984. According to Lissu, his popularity ratings are currently so low that the government has been forced to use forced labour via state prisoners to put up party flags for the presidential campaign, rather than free members of the public. Evoking the language of an older revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, Lissu said that he wants to ‘consign [Magufuli] to the dustbin of history’.
He continued in this streak of optimism while speaking of his party’s current political standing. In his eyes, CHADEMA have found themselves in an ‘even stronger’ position than after the 2015 election, when public opposition gatherings were banned, and the party was forced to ‘go underground’. As members could no longer rely on big meetings, smaller localised gatherings became essential with strong leadership in each district. Now, not only has the opposition managed to increase their presence in smaller communities, but their national membership has also increased to a record 6.7 million.
Lissu advised other opposition parties looking to establish support beyond their base of urban or rural areas that they ‘have to have resources and be present’. By ‘resources’, Lissu explained that the opposition need to have the ability to carry out campaigns and train polling agents in proper electoral procedures.
Here, the discussion moved to the Ugandan opposition leader, Bobi Wine. Wine has notably been outspoken on Twitter against the violence and encroachments of power made by Ugandan President Museveni in the name of COVID-19 safety restrictions.
Indeed, the pandemic and lockdown measures have provided President Museveni with the perfect excuse to imprison and torture political opposition figures in the name of public protection. One MP, Francis Sake is said to have been tortured at the hands of the government after distributing food to his starving constituents during lockdown.
In a tragic turn of irony, Uganda has not yet suffered any deaths due to coronavirus itself, but the government has killed many protestors in its name. According to Wine, a student of Makerere University was recently killed by police forces after protesting President Museveni’s powers during lockdown. All security camera footage from the university has been taken by police forces.
The coronavirus pandemic has also directly affected Wine’s People Power Movement. The ‘speed of progress’ has been hindered; just two hours prior to the webinar, a meeting between Bobi Wine and the students of Makerere University had been interrupted by police.
Wine further explained President Museveni’s manipulation of the electoral system with the perverse gift of COVID-19. The President has called for a ‘scientific election’ in which campaigning is not allowed on social distancing grounds. According to Wine, this is a clear attempt to stifle opposition voices in line with Museveni’s previous measures, such as taxing social media in Uganda to prevent young people from unifying online. Similarly, Museveni is accused of undermining all government and political institutions, such as the Electoral Commission, making them ‘impotent, filling them with his cronies’.
Nevertheless, there is no lack of optimism in the young political leader. Rather, Wine is positively overflowing with praise for the people in Uganda and keeps a strong faith in their desire for change. 80% of the country’s population is 'young', and so Wine is confident that in next year’s upcoming election, Museveni will not be able to ‘face down an entire generation’.
At this point, the discussion hosts broadened the conversation to tackle the role of the international community. As the Resistance Bureau is internationally run, this question was of great interest to both the hosts themselves and the audience watching from across the globe.
For Lissu, international communities should offer solidarity to democratic candidates and hold despotic leaders accountable for their actions. Having dedicated his life and career to the rule of law, Lissu maintains a great respect for international treaties on Human Rights but cannot abide by developed nations turning a blind eye to violations by members in favour of trade deals.
Wine went one step further, saying that the African Union should ‘name and shame’ dictators, and human rights laws should be a prerequisite to entering any beneficial trade or Aid for Trade agreement. Directing his message to the international community, Wine demanded organisations to ‘Stop sponsoring our oppression’.
The full panel discussion is available to watch on The Resistance Bureau’s YouTube channel.