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Tanzania fights illicit drugs, but at what expense?

Jenerali Ulimwengu
February 20, 2017

Tanzania continues to fight against illicit drugs. A recently-released list of "drug pushers," including the names of politicians and artistes, has raised questions about the role of the government in such a crackdown.

Sansibar Stonetown Heroinsüchtige  Sober House
Image: DW/M. Hartlep

There should be nothing new in any effort made by government officials to curb the use of and the trading in illicit drugs because they pose a real and present danger to society. Many African countries have suffered from the use of narcotics, especially among the youth, who are the greatest targets of those who peddle unlawful drugs.

Feeling abandoned and seeing no hope in the future, many young turn to various forms of escapism and the use of narcotics is one such escape route. The destruction of the health of a large number of young people leads to the sapping of a whole societal ethos.

Given this grim reality, the Tanzania government has frequently and rightly declared itself against the sale and use of these drugs. Those who are convicted of crimes related to the trade in, and use of narcotics have faced stiff jail sentences.

But in recent weeks, the tempo of the anti-drug fight has climbed to new heights, at least in words if not in deeds. Paul Makonda, the governor of the Dar es Salaam region, the country's main commercial center, has been holding press conferences to make public the names of individuals he accuses of being drug pushers and ordering them to report to the police within 24 hours.

Some of those mentioned in Makonda's statements are well known figures in politics and entertainment, including the head of the parliamentary opposition, prominent businessmen/women and hip-hop artists. These public accusations have excited public interest and provoked heated debate.

Tansania John Magufuli
President Magufuli has been criticized because of his political styleImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

While some of those mentioned have duly reported to the police, they also questioned the propriety of the process by which Makonda has chosen to tackle this issue. A couple has even opened lawsuits against him, accusing him of humiliating innocent citizens for his own populist ends.

Parliament has taken up the issue as well, since some of those mentioned are legislators. Makonda's orders have come at a time when several MPs have been arrested and some have been locked up for ordinarily bailable or fineable offences.

One MP has queried the propriety of a regional governor giving such orders that affect legislators rather than police carrying out their investigations quietly and moving to arrest a suspect once the investigation is done. Some people have seen this as a form of harassment, especially directed against the opposition.

Parliament has summoned Makonda to appear before it, and it is expected that he will face some tough questioning about the way he has been handling members of parliament. This can be gleaned from the harsh words reserved for Makonda during the parliamentary debates on this issue.

This could develop into something significant. The parliamentarians know that Makonda has the ear of President John Magufuli and that whatever he does has the blessings of the head of state. Confronting Makonda, therefore, may be one way the parliamentarians are using to call Magufuli to order after a whole year of the latter's orders and fiats.

Some of the MPs have called on Magufuli to rein in his appointee or relieve him of his duties altogether. It is highly unlikely that Magufuli, who many say rule by fiat, will heed the call. Indeed, he might be encouraged by the fact that many more governors at regional and district levels are already emulating Makonda's actions and issuing orders of their own.

It remains to be seen which side will prevail, and what the consequences of this tussle will be. The issue here is certainly not whether illicit drugs should be fought. It is rather about how to go about fighting them. 


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