By Tim McNulty
TANZANIA’s presidential election today could see the country slip into dictatorship, a leading East African researcher has told Redaction Politics.
President John Magufuli is seeking a mandate for a second five-year term on October 28 amid accusations of harassing the opposition and attempting to silence free press.
Reports also emerged today that some major sites and services, including Twitter and Whatsapp, have been restricted ahead of polling.
Nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’, Magufuli’s critics have accused him of undermining democratic institutions – and last month Human Rights Watch claimed his government had “increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media” ahead of the election.
Thabit Jacob, a research fellow at Roskilde University in Denmark told Redaction Politics he fears for Tanzania’s democratic future.
He said: “I think people realise it takes a lot of time and many years to build strong institutions, and to build the checks and balances and build freedom, you know, free media, and then you can lose all of that in a very short span of time.
“You know, here is the lesson for Tanzania, because from the 2000s onwards, until 2015, you could say, the country made quite a lot of progress, in terms of transparency in terms of accountability, in terms of building independence institutions.
“Then in a span of three to four years, all of that has gone. So people feel this is something that makes the election unique in that sense.”
Heading into the polls as the main challenger to Magufuli’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) government is Tundu Lissu, of leading opposition party Chadema.
Lissu narrowly survived a targeted shooting in 2017, an attack which the Tanzanian authorities have strongly denied any involvement in.
Following his return to the country and frontline politics in July this year, the lawyer has made upholding the rule of law a central plank of his offer to voters.
“Lissu has been saying this is the most important election that Tanzania has ever had,” Thabit said.
“And that is a pitch that resonates with a lot of people, you know, that the first thing we need to do is get rid of the last five years.
“It’s been five years of darkness, five years of misery, five years of the disappearance of very good journalists. A number of them have disappeared, a number of them have been to jail.
“So what he’s been saying is it’s been five years to forget. He’s saying we need a new beginning and a new chapter. And that is the message his campaign is thriving off,” Thabit told Redaction Politics.
Previously held up as a model of stable democracy in East Africa, Magufuli autocratic style since coming to power in 2015 has seen him exerting increasing levels of control over the country’s politics and society, according to Amnesty International.
Chadema have reported their campaign offices coming under attack including ones in the northern city of Arusha which were burnt to the ground.
Meanwhile, Tundu Lissu fell foul of the National Electoral Commission after he reportedly accused Magufuli of planning to rig the vote, his campaign was later suspended for a week.
“If you look at what the opposition has gone through in the last five years, they’ve been brutalised by the police, they have basically spent most of their time between court and prison,” Thabit said.
“You know, Tundu Lissu himself has got so many pending cases, Zitto Kabwe (leader of ACT-Wazalendo), are the same, Freeman Mboye (Chadema chairman), and others. So, while the president has so much time to do politics the opposition has hardly any time.”
The government of Tanzania strong deny claims they are seeking to hinder the opposition’s campaign and when approached the head directorate of presidential communication Gerson Msigwa declined to comment further.
CCM has been in power in various guises since Tanzania won first independence from the United Kingdom in 1961 and Magufuli is broadly tipped to secure a second term.
Thabit is concerned that such a mandate would see further authoritarianism creep into the country’s political fabric over the next five years.
He said: “Some people feel that if Magufuli wins again maybe this crackdown on the media, the crackdown on independent journalism, the crackdown on dissent and the civic space is going to decline.
“I think otherwise, I think over five more years we are going to see a more brutal regime. I think Magufuli will basically have nothing to lose. “
Of particular concern to opponents of Magufuli are rumours that the CCM leader harbours ambitions of continuing in office beyond his customary two terms.
Fears the 60-year-old could rewrite the country’s constitution to allow a further run in 2025 linger despite frequent official denials.
As Thabit points out: “There is a Swahili joke, but it basically translates like, if you’re a wife, and your husband is always telling you, no, you’re the only wife for me, I’m not planning to add another wife. If he’s telling you several times, then maybe he’s actually planning to do it.”
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