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Haven of Stability: New Election and Old Tools in Tanzania

Incumbent Tanzanian president John Magufuli, who came to power in 2015, has been credited with raising government revenue and initiating reforms of the mining industry. Heavy-handed tactics by Tanzania’s government to silence opponents, the media and civil society threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election on Wednesday and the country’s reputation for political stability.

Tanzania will hold its General Election on October 28th, this year, to elect presidents, Members of Parliament, House of Representatives and councillors. Over 29 million people have registered to vote. Voting will be allowed until 4pm local time (13:00 GMT).

Magufuli is running for a second term under the banner of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-ruling party. The ballot also features prominent opposition names including CHADEMA vice-chairman Tundu Lissu, who returned to Tanzania in July after three years abroad recovering from a shooting; and ACT-Wazalendo candidate Bernard Membe, a former CCM foreign minister.

President Magufuli, of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, appears determined to curtail his opponents’ ability to participate in a free and fair vote. Dozens of opposition hopefuls at the municipal and parliamentary level were disqualified from this year’s race by the National Electoral Commission in August, leaving the ruling party running unopposed in certain areas of the country.

Elected to a first term in 2015, Magufuli’s time in office has lived up to his nickname “Tinga Tinga”, Kiswahili for “the bulldozer”. He came to power on a promise to root out corruption. A series of eye-catching measures ensued, earning him the status of a model for other leaders, both within Tanzania and across the African continent.

Magufuli has been applauded by some for advancing a series of major developmental projects. He launched several large-scale infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a new railway line from Dar Es Salaam to Morogoro. Magufuli also abolished secondary school fees. Others have denounced him for his arguably more autocratic, repressive rule.

Chama Cha Mapinduzi, is one of the longest serving ruling parties in Africa. It is also the party of Tanzania’s socialist founding father, Julius Nyerere, who looms large over the country’s politics more than 20 years after his death.

CCM’s dominance has roots in Tanzania’s postcolonial nation-building. Julius Nyerere, the revered first president of Tanzania, believed African political parties, formed in response to colonial occupation as opposed to internal issues, were fundamentally different than those in the West. He saw one-party systems, representing the aspirations of an entire nation, as more democratic than multiparty systems, which he argued were prone to factionalism. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, said a one-party system would better align with traditional African forms of governance, which value consensus over competition.

The high number of registered voters has, however, raised concern among some government critics. Lawyer and outspoken critic Fatma Karume has questioned the relatively high voter registration numbers, which totals 52% of the country’s total population of 55 million. She said there had been a number of social media complaints about issues with registration, such as double registration, incorrect registration or registration of people born in the future.

In recent months, Tanzanian authorities have deployed an escalating array of arbitrary and partisan legal actions against political opposition and the media that could further undermine the credibility of the elections. Chadema presidential candidate Tundu Lissu claimed that there were vote-rigging plans on the October 28 polls meant to deny the opposition victory across all the electoral levels.

Tanzanians’ growing resistance to the ruling class appears, in the context of CCM’s enduring popularity, exceptional. However, pushback at present should be seen primarily as a rejection of Magufuli and his quest for one-man rule rather than CCM’s post-liberation ideology. Indeed, many members of the public have called upon the CCM Elders, a group of twenty-one Tanzanian and Zanzibari former presidents and prime ministers, and other prominent party figures to push for a national dialogue that will halt the rapid erosion of the country’s good-government and democratic norms. While the Elders’ formal powers within CCM have diminished in the last fifteen years, their opinions continue to hold unique weight across the political spectrum.

During his tenure has seen the gradual and systematic fall of the country’s democratic credentials in which opposition politicians have been on the receiving end of brutal violence, unfair prosecution and public humiliation. President Magufuli has overseen a highly polarised political environment in which the ruling party’s dominance has been forced upon Tanzanian politics through unfair rules of engagement.

International watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have warned that repression of the opposition, activist groups, and the media has increased. However, the government has previously denied clamping down on dissent.

Amnesty International said this month that opposition parties were facing harassment, arbitrary arrest and intimidation from authorities ahead of the vote, whereas the ruling party was allowed to campaign free and unhindered. Then Magufuli’s administration passed a raft of repressive legislation exerting what rights organizations have called an alarming level of control over the country’s politics in the months ahead of the 2020 presidential and general elections.

There have even been reports that SMS messages containing the names of opposition presidential candidates, such as Tundu Lissu and Maalim Seif, can’t go through when sent.

Authorities have effectively clamped down on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, according to Amnesty International.

Security forces have arrested opposition candidates on bogus charges, stripping them of their right to freedom of assembly, association and movement in recent months, the report noted.

The move to limit internet services in Tanzania is part of a larger trend across Africa where governments choose to interfere with users’ rights to freedom of expression particularly during events of major political significance.

In April TCRA suspended Mwananchi, a Kiswahili-language newspaper, from publishing online for six months for posting an old video of Magufuli in a busy fish market. At the time, people familiar with the matter said the video had been construed to show the president was acting imprudently amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the regulator hit Kwanza Online TV with an 11-month ban for sharing an American embassy COVID-19 travel warning. Mwananchi came back online on October 16, according to reports on its website and on TheCitizen, which is owned by the same company.

In August, there have been speculations by digital rights activists that Tanzania may restrict internet services especially popular social media platforms, according to Paradigm Initiative. Meanwhile, recent reports have indicated that internet users across Tanzania have reported some sites, including WhatsApp and Twitter, are being restricted as millions of people vote in the general election.

Tanzanian government does not have the authority to fully shut down the internet. But the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, 2020, gives the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) power to order service providers to block or filter content if the TCRA deems such content is prohibited, says a human rights.

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