Tanzania's legendary "tranquillity" under threat

Tanzania's legendary ©Tony Karumba/AFP
Tundu Lissu (in wheelchair) after a January 5 press conference in the grounds of Nairobi hospital, Kenya
3 min 25Approximate reading time

Since President John Magufuli’s election in late 2015, Tanzania has been losing its reputation as a haven of “peace and tranquillity” previously envied by its neighbours. Murders and attempted murders of opponents, suspension of media deemed critical, disappearances of journalists, harassment of human rights activists and artists have reached an unprecedented level. Given this situation, the Tanzanian Catholic church, viewed as close to the regime, has recently crossed the Rubicon to denounce the excesses of the president. A few days later, some 100 local organizations launched a joint warning against this suppression of freedoms.

Although 2016, the first year of Magufuli’s administration, saw its share of human rights violations, it was 2017 that beat the records. The most spectacular case was the kidnapping in April of young rapper Ibrahim Mussa, known as Roma Mkatoliki, and three people working with him from their studios in the economic capital Dar Es Salaam. Reappearing after several days of captivity, the artist and composer known for his satire against the regime, told how he and his friends had been kidnapped by unknown armed men, handcuffed, bound, beaten and thrown out into the countryside.

The singer’s disappearance came after the police arrest on March 26 of another rapper, "Nay wa Mitego", because of a song criticizing President John Magufuli. He was freed the next day.

Almost at the same moment, opposition parliamentarians declared publicly that they feared for their security. Some of them likeTundu Lissu, number two in the parliamentary opposition, claimed they were being regularly followed by the security services. The government said these were false accusations by opponents seeking more visibility. But what Lissu feared happened on September 7, 2017, in broad daylight as he was coming out of parliament. Tundu Lissu, who is also head of the Tanzanian Bar of lawyers, was seriously injured by several gunshots fired by attackers who have still not been identified. After intensive care in Nairobi, Kenya, he is currently hospitalized in Brussels, Belgium. He and his party, Chama cha demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party for Democracy and Development in Swahili) have accused President Magufuli and his government of being behind this attempted assassination. The authorities have always denied these allegations but have not arrested a single suspect.

Two opposition activists killed

Several other opposition activists were also subsequently arrested for having criticized the country’s new strongman, newspapers were temporarily shut down, human rights activists harassed, journalists were intimidated or went missing. Even more serious, two opposition activists were killed in February 2018 in circumstances that point to political assassinations.

Given the worsening situation, the Tanzanian Catholic Church, which had long been criticized for its silence, took its courage in both hands and in a pastoral letter published on February 10 denounced violations of democratic des principles, freedom of opinion and expression by the government of President Magufuli.

In their pastoral guide for Lent and Easter 2018, the men of the church note that “political activities are banned through use of the security forces”. “Public gatherings, demonstrations, marches and debates inside buildings which are the right of every citizen are suspended until the next elections,” says the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Tanzania, denouncing “violations of the Constitution and national laws”. They also say that media have been shut down or temporarily suspended, “thus undermining the right of citizens to information, freedom of opinion and expression”. The signatories of the pastoral letter describe a situation conducive to “division and hatred which could endanger peace, security and human lives”. “If we allow this climate to continue,” they warn, “we should not be surprised if tomorrow we find ourselves plunged in deeper conflicts which destroy the foundations of peace and national unity”.

On February 21, 105 non-governmental organizations also joined together in an unprecedented move to denounce the “stifling” of democracy, freedom of the press and of expression and the holding of “by-elections stained with irregularities and bloodshed that put the peace of our country at risk". Given these “unprecedented” human rights violations, the NGOs called for the setting up of an independent  electoral commission before the next general elections in 2020, and an independent national commission with representatives from civil society, media and religious communities to investigate the incidents that marred recent by-elections, during which two opposition activists were killed. They urged the police to "stop taking sides” with the party in power. Finally, the NGOs called for organization of a "national dialogue" on “the current threats to peace and national unity”, including the churches, labour unions, representatives of government and civil society and former top officials of the country.

United States and European Union concerns

The situation is such that the representatives Tanzania’s main donors also decided to speak out. "The rise in politically-related confrontations and violence is concerning, and we call on all parties to safeguard the peace and security of the democratic process, the country, and the Tanzanian people,” says a February 14 statement by the US embassy in Tanzania.  “We also join Tanzanians in calling for a transparent investigation to hold all perpetrators of violence accountable in accordance with Tanzanian law."

Ten days later the European Union said it noted with concern "the recent developments which threaten democratic values and the rights of Tanzanians in a country which is widely respected in the world for its stability, peacefulness and freedoms.” In its communiqué, the EU called upon those responsible “to safeguard the peace and security of democratic process, the country, its citizens and respect for the due process of law without impunity”.