Tanzania: Upholding Democratic Principles is Key to Free and Fair Elections

As Tanzania gears towards its parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for October 28, 2020, a new report by Amnesty International has revealed how the state is using repressive laws to muzzle the opposition and squeeze political space ahead of the polls. According to the report, the state, under President Magufuli – who also is seeking re-election for a second five-year term – “has used a raft of repressive laws to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association – online and offline”. Although Tanzania has held democratic elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1992, the increasingly tight control of the political space by the state as witnessed in the context of the upcoming elections demonstrates the extent to which democratic principles and the protection of human rights, including civil and political rights, have deteriorated thus far. To ensure free and fair elections and avert political backlash that may result from contested poll outcomes, the authorities in Tanzania should uphold democratic principles; stop the arbitrary arrest and selective targeting of the opposition; promote and protect human rights; grant media freedom and operation of civil society organizations, and ensure transparency and accountability during and after the elections.

Move towards repression

Tanzania’s general elections come against the backdrop of a tense political environment in which the opposition has expressed fears over schemes to block them from the polls. In August, just a few weeks before the parties presented their nomination papers to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the main opposition party, CHADEMA, and other political parties claimed that their candidates were being unduly targeted with threats of disqualification from the elections, incessant state harassment, frequent arrests, and police intimidation including the prohibition to hold political rallies. CHADEMA’s presidential candidate, Tundu Lissu, faces the fiercest hurdle. Shortly after returning to the country from Belgium where he was seeking specialized medical treatment following an assassination attempt in September 2017 in which he suffered 16 gunshots, Lissu was nominated to carry CHADEMA ticket in the general elections. However, given his popularity and imminent threat to President Magufuli’s quest for re-election, he has been a major target of the repression campaign. On August 13, just over a week following his nomination as CHADEMA’s candidate, the party’s headquarters in Arusha was firebombed. On October 3, the NEC suspended Lissu’s campaigns for seven days for breaching the electoral code of ethics over allegations that he had made seditious remarks, claiming that President Magufuli held a meeting with returning officers to plot the elections. Lissu has also been issued with a series of police summons since his nomination for the presidency.

Shrinking democratic space

Other than a direct attack on the opposition, the elections also come amidst an increasingly shrinking democratic space. The Tanzanian government has restricted media freedom and sustained crackdown on non-governmental civil society organizations, leading to violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms such as the right to unhindered access to information, freedom of expression, assembly, and organization. Just before the electioneering period, the government banned several media outlets – both print and broadcast – for allegedly breaching laws and professional ethics through the production and dissemination of ‘biased, misleading and disruptive content’. Between June and August 2020, several local media outlets such as Tanzania Daima Newspaper, Kwanza TV, Clouds TV, have Cloud FM have had their licenses either suspended or indefinitely revoked. The August 11, 2020, amendment of the Electronic and Postal Communications (Radio and Television Broadcast) regulation 2018 has also introduced stringent laws to clamp down the operation of international media ahead of the elections.

Although heightened in the context of the coming elections, the recent trend of repression demonstrates the continual drift to autocracy since President Magufuli took power in 2015. There has been an attempt to erode Tanzania’s democracy and multi-party politics built over the last two and half decades. Through laws that aim to curtail certain rights, political heavy-handedness, and intolerance toward the opposition, President Magufuli has tried to limit political freedoms and censure dissent from the ruling party, CCM.  The ongoing trend started in 2016, when the President issued a blanket order, restricting all political activities in the country until 2020. However, while the need to focus on national development and increase accountability was laudable, the selective enforcement of the order by the police, in which politicians from the CCM were allowed to organize and conduct political meetings without interference has raised eyebrows and elicited concerns about Tanzania’s dramatic drift to authoritarianism.

The coming elections

The upcoming elections present a critical juncture that will determine the trajectory and nature of governance that will take root in Tanzania. With just about one week to the polls, concerns over President Magufuli’s possible use of state power to influence the election outcomes put the credibility of the elections in doubt. There is a high possibility that contested results may sow political dissonance and even cause conflict as the opposition will revolt against President Magufuli’s victory. Against this backdrop, it is imperative that the government of Tanzania ensures that the elections represent authentic competition based on the principles of fairness and guided by the rule of law. As a bottom-line requirement, the government needs to enhance institutional independence and capacity of the National Electoral Commission (NEC) to conduct transparent, credible, and free and fair elections. The commission will need to enhance its capacity to investigate election-related allegations as per the constitution and in respect of the fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Additionally, the government should publicly demonstrate tolerance for the opposition and stop police intimidation, harassment, and unlawful arrests. This should be coupled with critical measures to enhance media freedom before, during, and after the elections as a way of enhancing transparency and accountability. Regional and international partners should engage more closely with Tanzanian authorities to ensure compliance with regional and international protocols on the conduct of elections and upholding democratic principles. Regional Organizations such as the East Africa Community, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and the African Union (AU) should urge the Tanzanian government to respect, protect and promote human rights during and after the elections.

Joel O. Otieno  is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Photo: Tundu Lissu, Tanzanian opposition politician and presidential hopeful, at a past political rally in Tanzania (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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