ARI seeks to encourage debate and question orthodox views. In this spirit, we post this guest blog by Zitto Kabwe MP. He argues that while the United Republic of Tanzania is a youthful and dynamic nation, beneath the surface not all is well.
A decade of 5-8% annual GDP growth has not been met by a commensurate improvement in living conditions or popular welfare. According to official statistics, 28% of Tanzanians fall below the poverty line and 10% are categorised as living in food poverty. The situation is particularly acute in rural areas, where 85% of the population resides. The relative prosperity of Dar es Salaam, our commercial capital, is to be celebrated; but its emergence has also revealed growing inequality. For example, while 81% of city-dwellers have access to safe drinking water, this is only 47% in rural areas, according to the Household Budget Survey of 2011/12.
Superficial socio-economic progress is mirrored in the political realm. Tanzania introduced multi-party politics in 1992, and the country has held elections every five years since 1995. However, Africa’s longest serving ruling-party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has won on each occasion with between 58 and 80% of the vote at presidential elections. CCM’s share of parliamentary seats has never fallen below two-thirds, enabling successive governments to legislate without the need to make concessions. An increasing number of dissenting voices from the opposition benches has yet to translate into the ability to meaningfully shape national policies.
The 2015 general elections were arguably the most competitive since Tanzania’s first multi-party elections in 1995. The defection from CCM of a former prime minister, Edward Lowassa, and his decision to contest for the presidency changed the political equation. An opposition coalition secured 6 million votes (42%) as against 8 million (58%) garnered by the winning CCM candidate Dr John Pombe Magufuli. In the previous election in 2010, the opposition’s main challenger, Dr Wilbrod Slaa, had won 26% of the vote.
Multi-party democracy has blossomed in line with greater freedom of expression, more vibrant political campaigning, and media plurality and diversity. Despite operational hiccups, elections have largely been peaceful, transparent and orderly. The semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar provide a notable exception. Elections in Zanzibar have been characterised by rampant irregularities and allegations of rigging and voter intimidation. In 2015, the government displayed a blatant disregard for democratic norms by nullifying elections results which indicated an opposition victory. Its refusal to concede electoral defeat also brought an end to five years of power-sharing on the Isles.
This troubling anomaly aside, the 2015 elections provided a political transition within the confines of the dominant party, bringing Dr Magufuli to power.
Characteristics of the Magufuli Presidency
Once sworn in as Tanzania’s fifth head of state, Dr Magufuli defined himself as an action-oriented president. He committed to four issues: deal with corruption decisively; control government expenditure; enforce accountability and discipline in public service; and improve domestic revenue collection.
Dr Magufuli’s government has demonstrated decisiveness, and at times ruthlessness, in dealing with these priority areas. Though it is too early to make firm conclusions about the performance in delivering the agenda, some positive developments are notable in improving public accountability and in containing corruption. This has won the president the support of a majority of the population, as recent opinion polls show.
The reasons for widespread admiration of Dr Magufuli are obvious, if at times troubling. Firstly, he has shaken up the civil service in an unprecedented manner. Across central and local government and the parastatals, dozens of high-profile public servants have been suspended or dismissed. This has often been without proper regard for disciplinary processes or the law of the nation. In a country with growing inequality and a sense of widespread impunity, many ordinary citizens are happy to see heads rolling.
The president has shown that he prefers to operate through quick and tough actions, with a lesser focus on strengthening institutions that uphold accountability and the rule of law. In fact, by acting in breach of the law, his deeds actively fuel impunity. Without abiding by due process and the rule of law, victimisation within the public service has become the new normal. There has been little evidence that the firing of individuals has reduced corruption amongst officials. Few of those dismissed or suspended have been taken to court and, in fact, some of them have been recently reinstated in different capacities.
While a greater focus on accountability is laudable, the actions of Dr Magufuli have revealed a great deal about his character and beliefs. He is a leader who does NOT believe in democracy and fundamental freedoms, or in multi-party politics. He has made it clear that he is willing to sacrifice the progress that Tanzania has made democratically in order to achieve his objectives.
One of the first measures that the president took, and perhaps the most disturbing to date, was to ban opposition political party activities. More recently, in July 2016, Dr Magufuli declared that there should be no political activities in the form of public rallies or demonstrations until the next election in 2020. The security services have been ordered to enforce this decision, but it is a blatant violation of the constitution and the laws governing political parties.
Even the sanctity of organisational democracy was briefly threatened when political parties were informed that they could not proceed with internal party meetings and conventions. This announcement was later retracted, but not before the police started implementing it on the opposition with unseemly enthusiasm.
Essentially, by banning political activities, Dr Magufuli was declaring a de facto one-party state in a country that has enjoyed multi-party politics for over 20 years. It has taken a more dangerous turn more recently with the arrests and harassment of members of the opposition. For the first time in Tanzania’s recent history, there are two opposition MPs sitting in jail. Both have been charged with sedition. Mr. Godbless Lema of Arusha Urban has been remanded since November 2016 on charges of insulting the president. He has been denied bail multiple times for what is clearly a bail-able offence. Mr. Peter Lijualikali of Kilombero, has been sentenced to six months in jail. I myself have been questioned by police twice and write this article after escaping an arrest on dubious sedition charges.
These moves to undo Tanzania’s democracy have been further accentuated by the president’s campaign against media freedom and freedom of expression. The current regime has swiftly and arbitrarily applied the draconian Cybercrimes Act and Media Services Act to crack down on mainstream and social media. To date, at least 12 people have been arrested for allegedly insulting the name of the president online. Some of them were inexplicably denied bail. The owner of JamiiForums, a popular social media platform, is facing criminal charges for allegedly denying police officers access to personal information of the platform users. JamiiForums has been an important platform over the years for whistleblowers of government corruption and has been a rallying point for many who wish to criticise the regime anonymously.
Just as worrying, at least four media outlets have been suspended or shut down indefinitely. Recently, the president commented that he has his eye on two more newspapers. The new Media Services law affords the government sweeping powers to control and censor the sector, and to criminalise free speech. Live television broadcasts of parliamentary sessions have been terminated, and MPs expressing their discontent were banned from the House. Meanwhile the president ensures that all his public appearances, however insignificant they may be, are broadcast live by all media outlets.
Consequently, there is increasing self-censorship in the media fraternity for fear of incurring the wrath of the head of state or his acolytes. This undermines his fight against corruption, as media has always played a key role in enforcing accountability in Tanzania.
Democracy under threat
The actions described above are disturbing developments which undermine progress towards democratisation in Tanzania. In line with autocratic practice elsewhere, President Magufuli is systematically undermining independent institutions, including Parliament, despite the numerical dominance of his party, CCM. Local governments remain ineffective and subject to the authority of presidential appointees in the form of regional and district commissioners. The media and other civil society organisations are systematically being attacked and have resorted to self-censorship for survival.
In this political context, external observers should be encouraged to pay greater attention to Tanzania, and to help arrest its descent into authoritarianism. Difficult issues must be raised with the government to ensure that it does not dismantle the foundations of democracy painstakingly established over the past two decades.
Discussions should not skirt around the question of Zanzibar, where a political impasse can only be resolved through dialogue if democracy is to prevail. Tanzania cannot, and should not, entertain the possibility of competitive multi-party elections in 2020 until the Zanzibar situation is resolved, or political parties on the mainland will lose faith in the government’s commitment to the democratic system.
In a democracy, political parties must not be constrained from undertaking their constitutionally and legally guaranteed obligations. Opposition members of parliament do not deserve to be intimidated and arrested for expressing their minds. The government should free those charged on dubious charges, such as sedition.
Zitto Kabwe is party leader of ACT-Wazalendo and the Member of Parliament for Kigoma Urban constituency.
Featured image by Pernille Bærendtsen, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30776346
 The official basic needs poverty line is set at 36,482 Tanzanian Shillings (about US$19.7) and food poverty line at 26,085 Tanzanian Shillings (about US$14.1)