Freedom of opinion and expression under threat in Tanzania

Freedom of opinion and expression under threat in Tanzania©Banque Mondiale/Flickr
Tanzanian President John Magufuli welcomes World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim to Dar es Salaam, March 20, 2017
3 min 29Approximate reading time

Is Tanzania still the “peaceful and stable country” that its residents and visitors say it is? Since the start of this year, more and more people, including from within the ranks of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution in Swahili) are denouncing attacks on people critical of President John Magufuli, elected at the end of 2015.

The last straw was the abduction on the evening of April 5 in Dar es Salaam of a well-known rapper, famous for his lyrics criticizing the government. Singer Ibrahim Mussa and his three companions were taken by unidentified armed men, and only reappeared three days later, showing signs of beating and torture. The musician, known to the public under the name Roma Mkatoliki, recounted his ordeal at a press conference on April 10 in his country’s commercial capital. He said that during their captivity, he and his companions had been tortured, blindfolded, with arms and legs tied, before being released into the bush. The artist added that they had been subjected to long interrogation, the content of which he is not disclosing for the moment, in line with an order from the police. “We are not safe,” he said before the cameras of the national and international press. “Our security is not guaranteed. Anything could happen at any moment.” 

Attacks on the press

The singer’s abduction took place as the country was just recovering from the shock caused by Dar es Salaam governor John Makonda’s violent intrusion into the studios of Clouds FM, one of the main private radio and TV stations of city. The young governor entered Clouds FM on the night of March 17 demanding the broadcast of a video accusing a renowned Dar es Salaam pastor with whom he is in dispute of adultery. The young governor, accompanied by armed men, threatened employees that he would throw them in jail if they did not obey. But they refused, citing journalistic ethics.

To general surprise, President Magufuli expressed public support for the governor, although there was an avalanche of protests from all sides, including the ranks of the ruling party. Even worse, Information Minister Nape Nnauye, the first top official to publicly criticize governor Makonda’s behaviour, was dismissed from the government less than a week later.

Opposition leader disappears

The aggression against Clouds FM staff and abduction of rapper Roma Mkatoliki have revived debate about last November’s disappearance of Ben Saanane, assistant to parliamentary opposition leader Freeman Mbowe.  During a meeting in his electoral fief of Mtama in the south of the country, Nape Nnauye, who has kept his seat as an MP, called for an independent inquiry on these attacks and abductions “which are a new phenomenon in Tanzania”. “These criminal acts will only set the people against the Chama Cha Mapinduzi and the President of the Republic,” said Nnauye, predicting difficulties for his party in the next elections “if all the people responsible for these abductions are not identified and punished”.

As might have been expected, the issue came up again when parliament reconvened on April 10. MP Hussein Bashe, who is also a member of the ruling party, claimed he had information that there was a group within the Tanzania intelligence and security service responsible for these abductions and disappearances of undesirable people. “Parliament and government can no longer close their eyes while citizens are abducted by unknown agents,” he said, requesting that Parliament suspend its initial agenda to discuss this “pressing” issue. He was immediately supported by opposition MP Joseph Mbilinyi who also called for Interior Minister Mwigulu Nchemba’s resignation, but the request was rejected by parliamentary vice-president Ackson Tulia.

“Wrong to keep quiet”

But the issue returned the next day when Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency, claimed that opposition figure Ben Saanane had been carried off by members of the intelligence services. Zitto Kabwe, a young MP respected by his colleagues, added that the armed men who accompanied governor Makonda in his nighttime intrusion at Clouds FM were members of President Magufuli’s security service.

“These acts may be the work of individuals whose aim is to tarnish the government,” Interior Minister Mwigulu Nchemba said in an interview with the Mwananchi newspaper. But that does not satisfy MP Ridhiwani Kikwete, son of former president Jakaya Kikwete. “Mr. Mwigulu Nchemba, you are wrong to keep quiet when the people are crying out,” Ridhiwani Kikwete said in parliament on April 11.

“Putting the country to shame”

The same day, the national Human Rights Commission, set up by the government, also broke its silence. “It is shocking and it puts the country to shame that these abduction cases are increasing whilst the government has not caught the perpetrators and brought them to justice,” says a commission press release in Swahili.  In addition to the cases of Ben Saanane, Roma Mkatoliki and his companions, the commission also cites the case of Deutsche Welle correspondent Salma Saidi, who was abducted in Dar es Salaam in March 2016, reappearing later with marks of torture. According to the commission, preliminary investigations found that all these people were targeted because they exercised freedom of opinion and expression.

At the beginning of March, Tanzanian civil society organizations launched a campaign calling on the security forces and the government to guarantee respect for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These organizations, led by the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC – main Tanzanian human rights NGO), deplore what they say are many violations of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly since John Magufuli took office.