Tanzania is set to hold presidential elections next year. Opposition parties maintain their resolve despite mounting government pressure. Tom Collins reports from Nairobi for a two-part pre-election series.
Since independence in 1961, Tanzania has been ruled by just one party: the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), formerly the Tanganyika Africa National Union (TANU).
In 2015, the CCM faced its strongest challenge yet when a coalition of opposition parties named Ukawa nearly defeated the incoming president in a contested election.
John Magufuli has since banned political gatherings, passed draconian laws to curb freedom of speech and summoned opponents of the regime to court under trumped up charges.
Journalists have disappeared and members of the opposition have been attacked in broad daylight.
As Tanzania heads to the ballot box next year, the ruling party looks unlikely to let democracy stand in the way of its 58-year old stranglehold over the country.
In spite of all the challenges faced, opposition figures tell New African they will contest the next election as far as is possible.
The CCM’s slide to autocracy betrays the ruling party’s fear that tolerance for a one-party state may soon be coming to an end, they claim.
“There was never any fear from the ruling party that they can be defeated in the ballot box and that’s why they didn’t resort to heavy-handed tactics until now,” says Ismail Jussa, member of the Zanzibar House of Representatives for the newly-formed ACT-Wazalendo party.
“The Ukawa coalition showed it was possible for CCM to be defeated and that’s why they have resorted from 2015 onwards to continue to curb the democratic space so the opposition cannot go further.”
ACT-Wazalendo, the Alliance for Change and Transparency, gained just one seat in the national assembly or Bunge during the last election after its formation a year before.
Four years later, it promotes itself as Tanzania’s “leading opposition party” and hopes to play a decisive role in the upcoming election.
According to its Organisation and Membership Department, ACT-Wazalendo has 1.1m members in mainland Tanzania and 183,000 in Zanzibar.
The party received a boost in March when Seif Sharif Hamad, the secretary general of another opposition party the Civic United Front (CUF), which enjoys a strong following in Zanzibar’s two islands of Unguja and Pemba, defected to join ACT-Wazalendo.
He leaves the CUF, which more than doubled its number of MPs in the last election, following a leadership dispute in which the courts handed party chairmanship to Ibrahim Lipumba whom Hamad considers a Magufuli stooge.
Hamad has been the face of Zanzibar’s opposition for over three decades.
Droves of CUF supporters accompanied his defection; hoping the new party may finally help oust the CCM which has ruled semi-autonomous Zanzibar since it merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964.
CCM’s dominance has led to election violence in the past as Zanzibaris claim mainland oppression and interference in elections.
Ruling party politicians have in return accused prominent island opposition figures of seeking to “restore the Sultanate”, or to attempt to secede.
With CUF members boosting the ACT-Wazalendo rank and file, Jussa believes the party “has a good chance of winning the elections in Zanzibar.”
In the mainland too, the party enjoys support in places like Tanga, Dar es Salaam, Lindi, Mtwara and Kigoma where the party leader Zitto Kabwe hails from, he says.
ACT-Wazalendo’s overall ambition is to strike a deal with Tanzania’s other main opposition party, Chadema, thereby creating a similar coalition to Ukawa which can challenge the regime.
“Our aim is to defeat CMM and John Magufuli,” Jussa says.
“We believe we can only do so if the two major opposition parties work together. We believe we can deliver victory for the coalition and defeat CCM for the first time.”
Yet throughout his first term Magufuli has made it abundantly clear that the will of the people comes second to the will of the party.
“[CCM] will rule forever, for eternity,” he told party members last year, something which is fast becoming a constitutional reality.
The issue of extending term limits is already being mooted in ruling party circles and friendly media outlets, with a not-too-distant vote expected in parliament.
One ruling lawmaker even proposed that Tanzania should skip 2020 elections as “no one can defeat president Magufuli.”
Sadly, Magufuli has carried out a campaign of oppression and violence to guarantee exactly that.
At a press conference in Nairobi, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch revealed two separate reports which detailed in striking similarity the government’s lurch towards an oppressive regime.
“As President Magufuli marks four years in office next month, he must carefully reflect on his government’s record of ruthlessly disemboweling the country’s human rights framework,” said Roland Ebole, Amnesty International’s Tanzania researcher.
“His government must repeal all oppressive laws being used to clamp down on dissent, and urgently end all human rights violations and abuses.”
Since 2015, the government has muzzled at least five newspapers deemed critical of the regime including Tanzania’s major English language daily, The Citizen.
New regulation adopted last year requires bloggers to pay hefty license fees of up to $900 which most cannot afford.
The 2015 Statistics Act has allowed the government to determine what is “factual” by requiring all statistics to seek approval before being published.
Magufuli’s last approval-poll was in 2018 when Twaweza, a well-respected public survey firm, found support for his policies had dropped to 55% from 96% two years prior and was consequently shut down.
Along with oppressive legislation, journalist Azory Gwanda has been missing since 2017 after investigating human rights abuses and he is presumed dead.
The Tanzanian government has failed to carry out a credible investigation into his disappearance.
Equally alarming is the outright contempt for opposition parties.
In 2016, the government announced a blanket ban on public opposition rallies until 2020.
This act has now been amended to give the Registrar of Political Parties the powers to deregister parties, demand information and suspend party members.
Both Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo have been threatened with deregistration.
Thousands of their candidates have been disqualified from standing in recent local elections, which many believe is a dress rehearsal for next year.
Jussa describes a climate of fear and repression where “only if you are silent, your health and safety is assured.”
“There have been many incidents of kidnappings and incidents that make you restrict your freedom of movement to ensure you are safe,” he says.
“When you walk in the street, you have to make sure you are not followed.”
Party leader Zitto Kabwe was taken to court for posts on social media and remarks made during press conferences.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said there was “no way” the press conference could have been held in Tanzania, for fear of arrests and interruption by the authorities.
“But you cannot just surrender,” Jussa says defiantly.
“We find other means to continue to speak our mind.”