Civic, democratic space shrinking

When Twaweza released an opinion poll in July this year that showed President John Magufuli’s popularity as dipping, little did they know what was in store for them.

The repercussion that followed would be yet another evidence of the shrinking civic and democratic space in a country that was for many years hailed as a towering example in the region.

Twaweza, a local advocacy organisation, published results of their “Sauti za Wananchi” opinion poll, which showed, among other things, that President Magufuli’s popularity rating had plummeted by 16 per cent from 71 per cent in 2017 to 55 per cent in 2018.

Cumulatively, Dr Magufuli had dropped 40 percentage points when compared to the rating when he assumed office in 2015.

Within the same week that the poll results were released, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (Costech) came out with guns blazing, accusing the researchers of not following procedure in conducting the survey. Costech demanded an explanation from Twaweza as to why action should not be taken against it for its “unsanctioned” poll. Twaweza wrote to explain and the punishment was ultimately dropped.

However, the matter did not end there, a few days later the government confiscated the passport of Twaweza executive director Aidan Eyakuze on allegations that he is not a Tanzanian.

Mr Eyakuze has yet to get his passport back and is literally grounded and cannot do his work freely.

In fact, Mr Eyakuze would be just one among several people whose citizenships was questioned recently. Among these are students’ leaders, human rights activists, and members of the civil society organisations as well as religious leaders.

The government’s chief spokesperson Dr Hassan Abbas and the Immigration Department’s spokesperson Ally Mtanda maintains that there is no ill will in the questioning of people’s citizenship and that everyone’s citizenship can be questioned anytime.

But their investigation has been termed by independent analysts as a form of harassment and a way of silencing dissenting voices.

Deterioration of democracy

If there is a time that Tanzania’s democratic credentials were subjected under test is during the last three years. Restrictions placed on political parties’ activities and authorities’ apparent onslaught and detest of the opposition sums the tumultuous times currently facing those who cherish pluralism.

The backsliding and deterioration of the democratic development and civic space the country has enjoyed in decades is a blot on the administration even as authorities have defended the need to tone down politicking in favour of development.

Opposition leaders say the defence of why the government banned political activities is a ploy to entrench the ruling party, CCM, at the expense of other competitors.

Opposition rallies have been limited to only those areas where a politician represents. However, they have also more than once been interrupted and dispersed by the police.

The parliament also stopped live coverage of parliamentary proceedings after the government argued that it distracts people from working. However, the same live coverage has since been shifted to concentrate only on state functions.

New laws that have stifled freedom of expression and restricted online space have been enacted. In 2018, the government passed the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2018 which set to give the government unfettered powers to police the web.

With this law in place, social media and other internet users interested in content production have to register and pay a fee every year. Internet cafés are also expected to install surveillance cameras to record and archive activities inside their business premises.

When it was first proposed last year, observers and activists argued that some of the law’s definitions and wording were ambiguous, violated individual privacy, curtailed citizen’s right to free speech and expression, and went against the spirit of an open internet. Dr Magufuli is also expected to sign into law the newly amended Statistics Act, which was passed on September 10 by Parliament in Dodoma. The new Act seeks to criminalize the collection, analysis, and dissemination of any data without first obtaining authorisation from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Among institutions that have raised concern with the Statistics Act is the World Bank, which said it was restrictive and would negatively impact development in the country.

The bank is still holding on to $50million (equivalent to Sh112 billion) funding support for Tanzania over pending discussions on the new law.

In September 2017, the government also pulled out of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a move which threw into doubt government transparency reforms that had been initiated by President Jakaya Kikwete.

The government called the decision “only a temporary move” in the words of the then permanent secretary in the ministry of Foreign Affairs and East Africa Cooperation, Dr Aziz Mlima.

He said at the time that the government was seeking to reassess the OGP and find out if it was in line with national interests.”

Jailing of political leaders

Recent years have also witnessed dozens of people being charged for writing critical posts on social media. The life for opposition parties has also become more or less precarious. MPs and officials have been arrested and jailed for criticising the president or after they were charged with holding illegal assembly.

In February 2018, for example, a court in Mbeya sentenced Mbeya Urban legislator, Mr Joseph Mbilinyi, (Chadema) and the opposition party’s secretary for the Southern Highland Zone, Mr Emmanuel Masonga to five months in jail for what the court said the two were guilty of delivering a “hate speech” against the president of Tanzania. Kilombero MP Lijualikali also served six months in jail for disrupting a meeting.

The police has come under criticism for not exercising their mandate fairly, with claims that they were taking sides in the political space at the expense of enjoyment of free speech.

Chadema’s top brass has been in and out of the police, some facing multiple cases. For example, the party’s leaders including its national chairman Freeman Mbowe and secretary general Vincent Mashinji currently face 13 counts, which include staging an unlawful demonstration in Dar es Salaam in the run-up to the February 16, 208 parliamentary by-election in Kinondoni. The leaders, even when found guilty have claimed they were unfairly targeted.

Accusations of buying opposition leaders

Some authorities have also been accused of enticing opposition figures to defect to the ruling CCM. The ruling party has denied this narrative, but it has attracted suspicions in the manner in which it reappointed the same defectors to run for the same seats.

In total, nine opposition MPs have defected to CCM to ostensibly support President Magufuli’s agenda in a move that has left the opposition exposed and in tatters.

However, the by-elections have been marred by allegations of rigging, police interference, abductions and violence, things that forced the main opposition parties to boycott them.

To restore the situation to normalcy, commentators have suggested the need to resume the new constitution writing process while others have suggested the formation of the United Democratic Front to combat “the shrinking democratic space” in the words of ACT-Wazalendo party leader Zitto Kabwe, but nothing of the sort is seen on the horizon with the opposition still divided.


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