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Tanzania: a challenger returns

David Ehl
July 31, 2020

Tanzania's president, John Magufuli, is up for reelection in just under three months. His victory seems certain — and yet the political landscape has shifted since the return of a prominent opposition leader.

Tundu Lissu waves to a crowd from the back of an open car in Dar es Salaam
Image: DW/S. Khamis

Tundu Lissu clearly enjoyed bathing in the crowd's adoration: Standing on the back of an open vehicle, a chain of red and white roses around his neck and a Tanzanian flag over his left arm. With his right hand, he waved to the cheering crowd. On the videos which surfaced online, the popular politician's arrival at Dar es Salaam airport earlier this week look very similar to the reception of a winning sports team.

"I came home," said Lissu. "It was almost three years to the day and I don't remember how I left the country at all."

Lissu was the leader of the opposition Chadema party and a noted critic of President John Magufuli when he survived an assassination attempt in front of parliament in September 2017. The shooter has not yet been caught. For security reasons, Lissu was first treated in Kenya and later in Belgium. He has reportedly been operated on 19 times — but still wants to challenge Magufuli in the October elections. "Today I can run and even dance a little — although at the time, I shouldn't have survived," said Lissu when he arrived home.

Read more: A missing journalist, two detained activists: What's happening in Tanzania?

A changing political landscape

Lissu's return to the political scene has sparked a new level of enthusiasm among voters, according to Tanzanian journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu.

"There's a new hope that things may have changed," he told DW. "People had feared that he might be attacked by the same people who attacked him three years ago. This did not happen. People had feared that the police would try to disrupt the proceedings at the airport and along the way to the Chadema headquarters. That didn't happen. So it has quite changed the atmosphere on the ground here."

Soldiers carry the coffin of former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa
Former president Benjamin Mkapa ruled Tanzania for a decadeImage: DW/S. Khamis

However, Daniel El-Noshokaty, the country director at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Dar es Salaam, does not want to make too much of the fact that the police did not dissolve Lissu's reception, despite the initial ban.

"It was agreed with the police," he told DW. "Furthermore, the security forces are also very busy because former president Benjamin Mkapa has died. There are large mourning rallies everywhere, so the security forces have been sent elsewhere."

Mkapa — who held office from 1955-2005 — passed away a week ago. For this reason, Chadema also postponed its nomination conference by one week. Lissu hopes to be officially selected as the party's running candidate. For many observers, it's likely that he will prevail over the other two contenders. But things can change quickly. "The party conference is a large gathering of people from all over the country," explained Ulimwengu. "There could be differences in how they assess the situation."

Making the best of a difficult situation

The election campaign should ramp up in August, when Lissu is all but certain to be the most promising opposition candidate. Magufuli — whose CCM party has so far represented all five presidents since independence in 1961 — has recently taken on a more moderate tone.

"There is no small party," he said. "We are all equal and I believe all parties will run their campaigns in a civilized manner, so let's be patient. But let me also call on state organs to exercise a little patience. Don't use force where there's no need to use force."

Tanzanian President John Magufuli
President John Magufuli is likely to be re-elected, despite growing support for the oppositionImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Spatari

However, critics have accused Magufuli of systemically reducing the space for opposition and civil society during his tenure. Major media outlets were increasingly brought under government control, and attacks on journalists and opposition figures increased. Eight opposition figures have reportedly been arrested in recent weeks for violating a ban on assembly. In mid-July, three United Nations (UN) envoys urged that civil rights not be curtailed in the lead-up to and during elections in Tanzania.

Jenerali Ulimwengu said the opposition parties need to make the best of a difficult situation.

"That's the way the cookie crumbles; if you're given a bad deal and you still want to continue competing, you have to do what you can in those circumstances that are completely restrictive," the journalist said. "I think that's all they can hope for. Maybe gain a few more seats, because there are people who will be going to the voting booths who are not completely oblivious to what has been happening."

Read more: Tanzania under fire from WHO for lackluster response to COVID-19 pandemic

Coronavirus no longer an election issue

El-Noshokaty from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation — which is close to the CDU — does not expect a change of power either. "I assume that the president will be re-elected by a lager majority," he said. "Lissu had the change to gain respect and to pay so much more attention to the [last] election campaign that the opposition managed to win more constituencies than was expected."

Economic issues and civil rights are likely to play important roles in the election campaign. "Magufuli would like to drum up what he sees as development progress, victories in the economic field," said Ulimwengu. "But people might be able to look back at their own circumstances and realize that nothing much has changed."

A Dar es Salaam resident putting on a protective mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus
According to officials, Tanzania is "corona-free"Image: DW/E. Boniphace

The coronavirus pandemic has no far played no role in the elections, even if the real number of infections in Africa likely exceeds the number of confirmed cases. Tanzania has not published any official figures since April and Magufuli even declared the country to be "corona-free."

"Officially there is no coronavirus, everybody pretends like it doesn't exist," said El-Noshokaty. "Nobody wears facemasks, there is no more social distancing in Tanzania. But everybody knows that the virus is still here."