The last two weeks in Tanzania have seen several alarming instances of political violence and coercion. Opposition politician Godfrey Luena was killed in his home in what has been linked to a dispute over land grabbing by the local government. In addition, the vocal opposition Kigoma Urban MP, Zitto Kabwe, arrested for partaking in a political rally — political rallies have been outlawed since 2015 — and two opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo’s (CHADEMA) politicians were sentenced to five months in prison for ‘hate speech’. State repression has even found its way into popular culture. The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) banned a number of songs from ten local musicians, arguing that ‘they are against Tanzanian norms and values’.
While this trend of political violence and repression is concerning, it has not gone unnoticed. Since the beginning of 2018, a more sustained public response to state-control appears to have formed. What helped galvanise this was the death of the student who was killed by a stray police bullet during an opposition demonstration on 16 February.
Several columnists in national and regional newspapers directly addressed President John Magufuli and expressed their concerns over political violence and the deterioration in the democratic and human rights situation. 150 civil society organisations released a joint statement against ‘unprecedented violations of human and democratic rights under the government of President John Magufuli.’
The Tanzania Centre for Democracy (TDC), a body representing political parties, also met religious leaders to discuss the situation, and said they would seek an audience with Magufuli. They will attempt to convince him to revive the stalled constitutional review process which the government has shelved. Christian and Muslim clerics have publicly spoken of their concerns over political violence, killings, abductions and other threats, and have spoken of a ‘state of fear’ that has taken hold in Tanzania.
This emerging public response is still largely driven by an urban demographic. People in rural areas, with less access to media, have even fewer means of speaking out and any violence against them receives less coverage and public attention. Getting international attention is also difficult because of the lack of English media and the state’s control over media houses which restricts the flow of accurate information outside the country’s borders.
Both factors allow the government to act with greater impunity with minimal consequences. This is not aided by the fact that multilateral institutions and development initiatives — the World Bank, IMF, or the UK’s Department for International Development for example — continue to focus on the country’s growth potential and macro indicators, while ignoring or under-reporting the political realities on the ground.
Some Western governments have expressed concerns over the deterioration in the political situation, but this is unlikely to gain much traction not least because of Tanzania’s efforts to reorient itself towards China.
It is, however, positive to see that some forms of public response are gradually emerging, even if they are unlikely to be able to reverse the recent developments. For a long time Tanzania has been a defacto one party state, and the ruling party’s infrastructure and reach is overwhelming, and is often entwined with that of the state.