A solitary man standing in the way of a bulldozer has as much chance of stopping it as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle.
Tanzania’s Opposition leader Tundu Lissu has tried but instead ended up stopping 16 of 38 bullets pumped into his car.
And although the 52-year-old lawyer now limps around or rides in an armoured car sandwiched in a heavily guarded convoy, he says he is ready to pay the ultimate price if that is what it will take to unseat President John Pombe Magufuli, fondly referred to as ‘bulldozer’ by his supporters. In a candid interview with The Standard, the Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) presidential candidate, who still walks around with a bullet lodged at the base of his spine, talks of what it takes to oppose an autocratic system that has been entrenched for over 60 years.
When asked how it feels to be back to his country after three years of exile, he chuckles over the phone and says: “It feels weird to know that somebody out there could be trying to take you out. I cannot live my normal life. My private life is gone. It’s strange to drive in fast-driving convoys, but this is life now.”
This is not the only way life for the human rights activist and lawyer has changed since September 7, 2017, when he was attacked by two gunmen shortly after leaving Parliament.
Lissu jokes that his left leg is seven centimetres shorter, he has metal plates implanted in his body, a bullet that cannot be safely removed from his lower back, and numerous scars left by the bullets and surgeons’ scalpels that opened his body 24 times in Nairobi and Belgium.
But instead of quaking in his boots, the father of 18-year-old twins says he is ready to die for a cause he believes in and is busy preparing for the biggest political duel of his life.
The opposition politician vows that he will not be cowed, adding that he has the support of his wife Alicia Magabe, and sons Agostino Lissu and Edward Buhali, who at times think he is crazy to sacrifice his life in pursuit of political power.
The epic duel will be staged on October 28, when 29 million voters will cast their ballots to decide whether they will continue to be governed by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) under Magufuli or give Lissu’s Chadema the all-important task.
“People ask whether it is worth it despite all the torture and harassment I have been through. Was it worth it for Nelson Mandela to spend 27 years in prison, or thousands of freedom fighters to die in Kenya?” he poses.
Lissu has a ready answer: “Freedom is never cheap. It is paid for in blood and treasure. This is the way of humanity. I am inspired by figures like Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Tom Mboya, Bishop Alexander Muge and other heroes who died in the name of democracy.”
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Born on January 20, 1968, Lissu has little respect for Tanzania’s founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who he accuses of setting up the systems that have killed private enterprises and forced Tanzanians to submit to autocratic governments that have no room for opposing voices.
He says he was initiated into politics in the 1970s after State agents stormed his Mahabe village in Sigidi, demolished homes and herded everybody into Ujamaa socialist villages. At the end of the exercise, 8 million Tanzanians had been uprooted.
Lissu recalled how every family, regardless of its size, was allocated only two acres, a development that opened his eyes to the government’s oppressive policies that exposed its people to poverty. “It is ironic that while Nyerere was hailed as a freedom icon for assisting freedom fighters in South Africa, he created the legal paraphernalia of torture and oppression that have created the imperial presidency in Tanzania. Back at home, Nyerere was an autocrat.”
Although he was trained as a lawyer, Lissu treats the numerous criminal cases against him by the State as a badge of honour.
Before the 2017 attack, the former Sigidi East MP said he had been prosecuted once by President Benjamin Mkapa’s government and three times during Jakaya Kikwete’s tenure. He has been in court eight times under the current regime.
“I have been arrested so many times that I have lost count. In all these cases, some in which I am accused of sedition, I have never been convicted. These cases are just used to harass me. They know I cannot be intimidated but just want to waste my time.”
Chadema, he says, had broken new ground by presenting candidates in 85 per cent of the country’s constituencies (or 244 out of the 264 seats).
Lissu explains that 55 of the opposition candidates were disqualified by the Tanzania Electoral Commission over what he termed laughable reasons.
“There were instances our candidates were knocked out because of using the name Chadema instead of writing the party’s names in full. Others had been eliminated because they used initials of their middle names,” he said.
The Opposition leader said some candidates had been abducted, some right in front of electoral body officials as they presented their papers. They were released days later after the deadline had passed.
Although some of them have been allowed to contest after appeals, Lissu condemned the disenfranchisement of 244 candidates contesting local council posts.
He predicted that the campaigns would be tough and elections even tougher since the prevailing conditions had made it impossible for the international community to send observers owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Imagine since I came back in July, I have not been allowed to hold any Press conference. It is only yesterday (Wednesday) that I met some editors. The foreign press is not allowed to cover the elections from within,” he explained.
But despite the hurdles planted in his way, Lissu said he was still mobilising his supporters through rallies and social media platforms even as he puts pressure on the government to allow free and fair elections.
“Although Tanzania has been turned into a pariah state, the international community must demand that free and fair elections are held. They should use diplomacy and sanctions to leverage the government to do the right thing.”
In the event Chadema forms the next government, Lissu said he will “institute dramatic reforms to return democracy and the rule of law, and revive the economy by rekindling free enterprise and private sector, which had been killed, returning the country to the 1960s.”
The Opposition chief also promised that the country’s relationship with its neighbours would change for the better. “Our national and foreign policy is in tatters because of Magufuli’s isolationism. We must bring back Tanzania because it is now regarded as a skunk of the world.”
Lissu claimed that the East African Community was in the intensive care unit because Tanzania was not playing its role. “In South Africa, we have lost friends and our neighbours are not happy. The world can do without Tanzania but Tanzania cannot do without the world. Magufuli has not been attending regional meetings and the international community shuns us. We must reclaim our place at the community of nations.”
The Chadema presidential candidate said he had no illusions about the journey ahead and called on his supporters to brace themselves for a tough six weeks before they could cast their ballots.
With the rest of the world’s attention focused on fighting the coronavirus disease, which Tanzania banished through Executive Order, Lissu and his supporters will be struggling to break CCM’s vice-like grip on power.
“It is criminal to talk about coronavirus in my country. Magufuli has formally announced there is no corona. When people are sick and suspect it is the virus, they say they are suffering from changamoto za kupumua (breathing difficulties),” said Lissu.
The politician, who has spent his adult life crusading for democracy, said the democratic space was shrinking and warned that it would take more than a global pandemic to get the government to lift its collective knee off its citizenry to allow it to draw a gasp of fresh air. See Lissu's press conference in Nairobi 2018.