By Tim McNulty
TANZANIA election contender Tundu Lissu survived an attempt on his life three years ago, now he is the opposition’s main hope of victory in Wednesday’s crucial vote.
Lissu was shot 16 times in 2017 by as yet unidentified gunmen, the assassins failed with the 52-year-old receiving lengthy treatment in Belgium before returning in July to a hero’s welcome from supporters.
Still bearing his gunshot wounds and carrying crunches, Lissu’s open defiance has seen him emerge as the leading candidate for the main opposition party Chadema (Party for Democracy and Progress).
“You know, I’ve had people telling me they’re going to a Chadema rally because they can’t believe that Tundu Lissu is still alive. They just want to go and see him,” Thabit Jacob, a research fellow at Roskilde University in Denmark told Redaction Politics.
“His arrival has given Chadema and the opposition, in general, a new energy, and also has generated a lot of interest among supporters when some of them had lost hope.”
A brush with death has helped the veteran opposition leader breathe new life into the country’s opposition parties as the election builds towards polling day on Wednesday.
Chadema and the other smaller opposition parties have been left reeling from successive electoral defeats at the hands of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.
Indeed in the wake of the 2015 election, Chadema’s defeated presidential candidate elected to switch allegiances to CCM along with a swathe of opposition MPs.
An MP for Chadema since 2010, representing a district near his birthplace of Singida in the centre of the country, Lissu has been a fierce critic of CCM and vocal opponent of current President John Magufuli.
As Thabit explains: “Before Tundu Lissu’s arrival, you know, the opposition was absolutely in shambles. They were poorly organised but Lissu’s arrival has given them a new life, a completely new life.
“Because, you know, even before Lissu was shot, and then he went for treatment in Belgium, he was the guy who could take Magufuli, toe to toe, you know, he was the kind of person who was giving Magufuli a really hard time.”
On the campaign trail, Lissu faces an arduous mission in making headway against a party that has been in power since Tanzania’s independence in one guise or another.
Despite assurances from Magufuli, who is hunting a second five-year term, that the 2020 election would be both free and fair, the opposition claims the process is marred by fraud and human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch have accused the government of Tanzania of having “increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media.”
At the same time Lissu was taken in front of the state electoral commission to answer charges of making “seditious remarks” after he had reportedly accused Magufuli of planning to rig the vote – his campaign was later suspended for a week.
The head directorate of presidential communication Gerson Msigwa declined to comment on these allegations when approached by Redaction Politics.
The government and Electoral Commission have strongly denied all claims they are trying to tighten Magufuli’s grip on power but the opposition have doubled down, raising the prospect the final result could leave the country on a knife edge.
Thabit said: “The leaders of the opposition have been very vocal, and they’ve been using a very tough language. The chairman of Chadema, basically said, this time around, Kofi Annan is dead. But maybe now the head of the UN will have to come here, because I’m going to take my people onto the street.”
“He basically said, we are only going to concede defeat, if we feel the process is free and fair.”
On Friday, the chairman of Chadema Freeman Mbowe, openly accused the Electoral Commission of voter manipulation on Twitter.
He wrote: “There is a terrible breach of the voter Register. Millions of ghost voters & thousands of fake stations. Many opposition voters have been relocated or deliberately removed. “
Mbowe also called for the NEC to provide an explanation adding failing to do so “will electrify this country and render the election impossible (from the outset).”
Tanzania’s political climate is not historically immune to violence protests, clashes have often flared up in Zanzibar where elections are hard fought and the results frequently contested.
Thabit believes street protests could spread further this time, even spilling over into the mainland saying: “In the last election Chedema had the benefit of having a candidate who was not as vocal as Lissu is. But I think the way Lissu has been speaking and in the kind of messages has been saying he’s created a lot of support, which I think if the polls go wrong, you would expect you would expect people to be on the street. “
He has also noted a change in mood amongst the opposition rank and file on the mainland, a hunger for change that was absent before but has been rediscovered under Lissu.
“When Lissu was coming back from Belgium the police issued a number of announcements that nobody should be at the airport because if you are at the airport, you’re going to endanger your own security. And then close to 2000 people turned up, okay. Essentially in defiance of the police. I think to be fair to the police, they didn’t do anything that day. But I think what you are going to see is that, you know, people have become extremely fed up with what is happening.”
Thabit continued: “I think if the polls are kind of very close and a little bit contested you will see, the first few days after the election will be very tricky to watch.”
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