The last time veteran opposition leader Tundu Lissu left Tanzania, he was unconscious, aboard a medical flight to Nairobi. Unidentified gunmen had fired 16 bullets into his body outside his residence in the capital, Dodoma, in September 2017. He spent nearly three years in exile, first in Kenya, and then in Belgium, undergoing some 20 surgeries.
Lissu returned to his homeland last month, greeted at the airport by cheering crowds of supporters waving green palm fronds. “I was overwhelmed by the reception I received,” he told World Politics Review in an interview. “It was absolutely thrilling and humbling at the same time.”
In an interview with AFP just before he returned to Tanzania, Lissu said he was “going back home to try and fight for the presidency.” A former parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, Lissu is now vice chair of CHADEMA, the main opposition party, and has secured its nomination to run against President John Magufuli in the upcoming national election, in October. But the road ahead is dangerous.
Magufuli, who earned the nickname “the Bulldozer” from his days as the minister of public works, has been in office since 2015, when he won that year’s heavily contested election with 58 percent of the vote. Catapulted into the spotlight from his relatively obscure ministerial post, Magufuli promised to root out corruption and support more infrastructure projects, a pledge that resonated with Tanzanians and throughout East Africa. Critics, however, quickly accused him of stifling dissent and muzzling the press.
Within a year of ascending to the presidency, he forbade opposition rallies outside of the official campaign period and abolished live recordings of parliamentary proceedings. Police have beaten and arrested journalists, while Magufuli’s administration has suspended newspapers and shuttered nonprofits. In the days after Lissu returned to Tanzania in July, the government made it illegal to plan or support political protests on social media, and introduced new restrictions requiring local newspapers to seek approval before publishing any content from foreign journalists.
Magufuli has also refused to release data about the coronavirus pandemic since early May, claiming that Tanzania had rid itself of COVID-19 though prayer. Meanwhile, videos of nighttime burials, attended by shadowy figures in protective masks, have circulated on social media. And Tanzanian truck drivers have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 in neighboring countries.
Lissu asserts that the attack on his life, which he suspects was an assassination attempt, shows the government is willing to unleash violence against its opponents. A vocal critic of Magufuli, Lissu landed in court six times, including on charges of “hate speech” after calling Magufuli a dictator. Two months before he was shot, Lissu noticed he was being followed. He said senior members of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, warned him the president was angry, and urged caution.
On the day of the ambush, Lissu assumed the vehicle following him to the government-owned housing complex where he lived was simply his normal tail. But as he approached the gate, he noticed the security guards who were usually stationed there were gone; they also were not manning their usual posts at each of the compound’s residential blocks. That was when gunmen emerged from the car behind him with automatic rifles and opened fire.
With injuries that included broken arms, a smashed right knee and an injured pelvis, Lissu had to undergo extensive medical treatment. The government refused to foot the bill, despite provisions providing coverage to public sector employees under the National Health Insurance Fund, so Lissu and his family turned to private donations to help pay his medical expenses.
“When I was fighting for my life, I was denied statutory medical benefits,” Lissu said. “I am a member of parliament. Whether you like me, or you don’t, I’m entitled to certain benefits.” Lissu was later expelled from parliament for absenteeism, while recovering from his wounds in Belgium.
Magufuli condemned the assault at the time, encouraging security forces to hunt down the perpetrators, but the police have yet to make any arrests or even issue an investigation report. “The complicity of the government is made obvious in their unwillingness to investigate,” said Lissu’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, who also defends the Ugandan pop-star-turned-presidential-candidate Bobi Wine.
In a speech to legislators in June, Magufuli promised a free and fair election this fall. But Jeffrey Smith, founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit Vanguard Africa, is blunt in his assessment of this claim. “It’s Orwellian to its core,” he said. Magufuli “presents this reality to the world, [which] might not otherwise be watching, while doing the complete opposite on the ground.” According to Smith, sustained international attention is vital in the months ahead. “That is the only way people like Tundu are going to stay alive.”
Magufuli’s office did not respond to an email from World Politics Review requesting comment on the integrity of the upcoming elections and concerns about the safety of opposition leaders.
It is difficult to gauge just how popular Magufuli actually is now. A 2015 survey put his approval rating at 96 percent, but by 2018, it had fallen to 55 percent. These numbers could be inflated, however, as analysts say Tanzanians frequently underreport support for the opposition. Whatever the actual numbers of Magufuli’s supporters, they are certainly enthusiastic. Some have adopted the slogan “MATAGA”—Make Tanzania Great Again—which they use as a social media hashtag to glorify the president and attack his critics.
Yet Lissu is undaunted, promising to lead an administration guided by its respect for freedom of expression and a clear separation of powers between different branches of government. He has also pledged to undo the raft of restrictive measures implemented by Magufuli.
“These things will have to go,” Lissu told me, his voice rising passionately. “They don’t belong in a democracy. They belong in autocracies.”
Before he can begin this overhaul or even face Magufuli on Election Day, however, Lissu must secure the approval of Tanzania’s National Electoral Commission. He is currently traveling around the country, rallying supporters and drawing large crowds, but there is still a chance he could be barred from running. Last year, CHADEMA claimed that nearly all of its candidates in local elections were disqualified, leading it to boycott the election altogether along with five other opposition parties.
Lissu has also been summoned to the Magistrate’s Court in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, on long-standing sedition charges this week; his appearance is scheduled for the same day the election commission will announce any legal challenges to his candidacy. This has intensified speculation that he will be disqualified from the race before it even begins.
“If elections are going to be free and fair, as the president has said they should be, that space should be open to all groups and not just the ruling party,” Oryem Nyeko, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told WPR.
But Lissu predicts his tribulations will not end with the election commission. “If we are qualified to stand, I foresee a very rough campaign,” he said.
Recent events support this bleak outlook. In June, CHADEMA leader Freeman Mbowe was beaten by unknown assailants, in an attack his colleagues said was politically motivated. Just weeks after the incident, Zitto Kabwe, of the opposition party ACT Wazalendo, was arrested during an internal party meeting and charged with unlawful assembly. And earlier this month, the CHADEMA headquarters in the northeastern city of Arusha was set ablaze. Lissu shared photos of broken windows and blackened furniture thick with ash on social media.
For Lissu, the evident risks ahead are all the more reason to fight for the presidency. “If those of us who have been in this struggle for so long succumb to the pressure and the repression, then we’ll be used as negative examples to younger people who look up to us as their role models,” he said. “It is very important that we continue, that I personally continue to maintain my position, whatever the consequences.”
“People did not expect me to return home given what happened,” Lissu added. And yet, “I came back not with my tail between my legs, but militant as I have always been.”
This article was published by World Politics Review.