Intolerance, repression of rivals risk tainting Magufuli’s image

Viewed as a reformer when he took power in 2015, Tanzania's President John Magufuli (pictured) now faces mounting accusations of intolerance to criticism and illegal repression of opponents, which risks blighting his image. The latest in a growing list of concerns is the recent enactment of a law that severely restricts the freedom of association by cracking down on non-governmental organisations. The law was enacted hurriedly and with little consultation, after debate on its contents was certified as urgent, using a procedure that analysts say has no precedent in Tanzanian legislative history and which they have described as unconstitutional.

The tough measures contained in the law include a requirement that all non-profit organisations, including those already registered, must register afresh under the law. Each such organisation will then exist for a maximum of ten years after which it must seek fresh registration. Critics say that it is impossible to make long term plans under a law that limits how long an organisation can exist. This law compliments, and is consistent with, similarly hostile measures that the government has brought against associational life, including those requiring NGOs to publish quarterly financial accounts, to seek government permission for each activity they propose to carry out, and which empowers the registrar of NGOs to carry out impromptu inspection of NGOs.

This latest law was presented to parliament a mere 48 hours after it was first published, a departure from the procedure that requires a 14-day prior publication. The strong anti-NGO stance is not the only source of anxiety over the deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania. Of a far more chilling effect has been the prevalence of unexplained killings first evident in 2017 in the southern parts of Tanzania, and also now experienced in other parts of the country. Witnesses claim that human corpses wrapped in gunny bags became commonplace on River Rufiji the time the killings began.

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If the killings in southern Tanzanian were initially seen as atypical, this view would soon change in September 2017, when gunmen sprayed the car of Tundu Lissu, a Member of Parliament and the leader of the Tanzanian opposition Chadema, with 16 gunshots, shooting him six times. Two months after the attempt on Lissu’s life, Azory Gwanda, a journalist who had been investigating the Rufiji killings went missing. His wife, the last person who saw him alive, said that Gwanda was picked from home by unknown people in a white Land Cruiser, never to be seen again. Witnesses talk about the ubiquity of plain-clothed security operatives in white Land Cruisers in the Rufiji area, an area that has since witnessed an exodus of large numbers of people. In a recent interview with the BBC, Foreign Minister Paramagamba Kabudi admitted that Gwanda may have been killed but then minimised his killing by saying he was not the only one killed in Rufiji area.

There is little space to discuss Tanzania’s human rights problems, first, because Magufuli’s strong public relations performance makes it difficult to believe these things and, secondly, because of the growing risk to the media when it covers Magufuli negatively. Evidence of the erosion of media freedom includes the banning of four newspapers the arrest or harassment of journalists and, in the case of Gwanda, the disappearance.

With elections in Tanzania due next year, Lissu, now the main opposition leader, has remained in Belgium where he went for treatment after the shooting. The concern is how Tanzania can hold elections under these difficult conditions. Irrespective of the human rights concerns, analysts think Magufuli will probably be re-elected, especially because he has decimated the opposition.

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It is curious that Magufuli, ostensibly a popular president, would be involved in this Jekyll and Hyde behaviour, preaching reforms while cracking down on political dissent. There has been talk in Tanzania about plans to remove the constitutional presidential term limits, and there is a case on this pending in court. While Tanzania’s strong record of presidents respecting term limits makes the removal of term limits improbable, no other reason logically explains Magufuli’s behaviour. Since coming to power, he has distanced himself from his party, and is seen as acting outside its strictures. Under the circumstances, he has the space to defy the party, if he needs to. 

Not unexpectedly, fear now grips Tanzania. A meeting that I recently attended in Tanzania was organised in great secrecy with those present fearing that discussing their country would put them in harm’s way. I learnt that in the football match between Kenya and Tanzania, during the recent Africa Cup of Nations, a number of Tanzanians supported Kenya, because Magufuli had already assumed Tanzania would win, and had arrogated the victory to himself. Under Magufuli, ethnic mobilisation is now also becoming an issue in Tanzanian politics with many people saying they have never felt this divided.

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- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]

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