Repression persists in Tanzania ahead of upcoming election

Ahead of the upcoming general election scheduled for October 28 of this year, the Tanzanian government has detained political opposition members and increasingly repressed human rights groups and media outlets.

Since mid-June, at least 17 members of political opposition parties have been detained on charges of unlawful assembly or “endangering the peace,” while opposition leaders have stated they are conducting “perfectly legitimate activity.” Repression of the opposition parties ACT-Wazalendo and Chadema has ramped up ahead of the election as members have been arrested while attending internal meetings. For nine days between July 11 and 20, police arrested and detained Issa Ponda, a Muslim leader, after holding a press conference calling for free and fair elections. President John Magufuli of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party is running for a second consecutive five year term.

Magufuli was elected into power in 2015 and has a history of repression and encroaching authoritarianism. Only a few months into his presidency, he banned anti-government rallies organized by opposition parties. The presidency made the statement they would crack down on troublemakers “without mercy” as Magufuli told a crowd “do not test me.”

Ahead of the upcoming election, the government has also placed new restrictions on the media and shut down a newspaper associated with the opposition party. The government restricted and fined some news outlets that have reported on COVID-19, with President Magufuli having stated that COVID-19 no longer exists in the country. The Communications Authority banned Kwanza TV, an online television station, for 11 months after reporting on coronavirus via an Instagram post, claiming the station to be “unpatriotic.” Individuals have also been threatened or “subtlety warned” not to publicize materials deemed critical of the President or government.

With these restrictions, the Tanzanian government has also blocked human rights groups from observing the upcoming election. In July, the National Electoral Commission, tasked under Tanzania’s constitution with supervising elections, published the list of approved observer organizations, notably excluding many well known and major organizations expected to monitor the election. Organizations such as Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition and the Legal and Human Rights Centre were excluded and issued an appeal, but the Electoral Commision has not responded.

In addition to political repression, the government has also placed new online restrictions that criminalize online media, social media posts, and organizations that “promote homosexuality.”The government’s repression of LGBT people, rights, and organizations has resulted in violations of individual freedoms and liberties including arbitrary arrest.

On June 16 in Zanzibar, Hamid Muhammad Ali, director of the AIDS Initiative Youth Empowerment and Development, an LGBT rights group, was summoned and questioned by authorities as his organization’s registration was suspended for “promoting homosexuality”. Four days later, police entered and searched his home and directed him to take an anal examination at Mnazi Mmoja Hospital the next day. He did not undergo the examination but his fingerprints and a copy of his national ID card were taken.

Human Rights Watch has condemned the actions of the Tanzanian government threatening freedoms in the country. Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media so close to the elections.” 

The repression of critical media and arbitrary detention of political opponents has violated the right to liberty and security of a person and the right of freedom of expression and opinion universally guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In June, Magufuli dissolved the state Parliament days after opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was violently attacked. Addressing legislators, Magufuli said, “I want to assure everyone that the elections will be free and fair, for all political parties.” The European Union’s mission in Tanzania condemned the attack on Mbowe as an “attack against democracy.”

On October 1, the United States Embassy in Tanzania released a statement affirming support for the democratic process and calls from candidates for free and fair elections. The press release ensured the U.S. will be paying close attention to the situation stating, “We will not hesitate to consider consequences for those found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process.”

The increasingly authoritarian actions of Magufuli’s government have clear ramifications for Tanzania. With less than a month away from the general election, the world will be watching what unfolds.

Recommended Readings

  • “Tanzania: Freedoms Threatened Ahead of Elections” — Human Rights Watch
  • “Tanzania arrests opposition party leader, revokes newspaper lisence” — Reuters
  • “Coronavirus: John Magufuli declares Tanzania free of COVID-19” — BBC
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