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Tanzania: Political climate worsens

Martina Schwikowski im
September 8, 2017

President Magufuli has been accused of governing in an increasingly authoritarian style, as members of the opposition become concerned for their safety.

President John Magufuli  giving an address
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

In Tanzania, there is  growing concern over the worsening political climate. One of the government's most prominent critics has undergone an operation following an assassination attempt on Thursday in neighboring Kenya.

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu was on his way home after attending a parliamentary meeting when armed men fired multiple shots at his car. The 49-year-old leader of the Party for Democracy and Progress, also known as Chadema, was severely injured in the attack. Lissu is considered to be one of the most vocal critics of President John Magufuli. 

Criticism from all sides

Human rights activists have been pressuring Magufuli to govern in a less authoritarian manner. Magufuli himself claims that he was shocked by the assassination attempt on Lissu and promised a swift investigation of the crime. But criticism of Magufuli's government is not limited to members of the opposition parties; some former politicians of his Party of the Revolution (CCM) are also concerned by the actions of the current government. Former prime minister Fredrick Sumaye believes the government is not taking enough responsibility for the safety of its own citizens.

"In the absence of concrete measures on the part of the government, then you know there is a real problem of governance in the country," he said. "When an incident happens that concerns the life of any of the citizens, it is incumbent upon all government bodies to work to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice and that such incidents do not ever happen again."

Tundu Lissu, with another man,waves to the camera
Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu (waving) was seriously injured in an assassination attemptImage: DW/Said Khamis

Magufuli's government is certainly under pressure: reprisals against the opposition and new laws which limit freedom of the press impact a significant portion of the population. At the same time minorities are being increasingly targeted, including pregnant teenagers and homosexuals.

Opposition leader defiant as government support declines

Despite this tense situation, Lissu has refused to be intimidated by the president, despite being arrested several times. In July he called Magufuli a dictator and was promptly thrown in jail. He has also accused the government of neglecting the economy and exacerbating unemployment levels. All in all, Lissu has been arrested at least six time this past year, according to the Tanzanian media.

"This is becoming a really serious situation for the opposition," Rebekka Rumpel, a research assistant with the Africa Program at Chatham House in London, told DW. "We've had other members of Chadema also arrested – we have a senior advisor, Ben Saanane, who hasn't been seen since November 2016. I think this will deepen fear."

The president appears to be the driving force behind the increasing reprisals against the opposition – "[Magufuli] has said some worrying things," says Rumpel. One notable example occurred when the president stressed that the media should tread carefully and not overreach their freedoms. However Rumpel stresses that not everything can be blamed on Magufuli.

"A lot of the laws that were passed, that were used to clamp down on the opposition, were introduced before Magufuli was nominated to lead the party," she told DW. "So I think it comes from a longer-term nervousness from the CCM that their support is declining." 

Supporters of Tanzanian President John Magufuli
Supporters of the ruling CCM party celebrate after Magufuli was declared the winner of the 2015 presidential electionImage: Reuters/S. Said

In the 2015 elections, Mugufuli received just 58 percent of the vote – this represented a huge fall from the 2005 elections in which the CCM managed to win 80 percent of the vote. "I think it needs to be seen in a wider context of CCM's concern that it's seriously being challenged by Chadema," says Rumpel.

But Tanzania has not yet become an authoritarian state, says Richard Chaba from the Tanzanian branch of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation: "Saying that the state is autocratic would be an overstatement. There is still a functioning parliament and judiciary – they may not be perfect but they remain the two pillars. Limiting the opposition and the media alone does not make it an autocracy."

An increase in radical policy

Under Magufuli's government, many policies in Tanzania have become more radical, however.

"He has definitely tried to consolidate power within his party – at their congress in March, a lot of people who hadn't supported him in the past were fired from their positions," says Rumpel.

He has, however, taken a strong stance against corruption and fired a number of senior officials – including a close friend who was Tanzania's mines minister. The government has also introduced new mining reforms with an aim to benefit Tanzanian citizens over multi-national companies. 

Compared to its neighbors in the region, Tanzania is generally considered to be a stable country. However Rumpel says the government will continue to try and remain politically dominant: "President Magufuli remains popular despite all the criticism and he will surely compete in the next election – it's just a question of how far he will go."