Opposition complains of repression as Tanzania heads to the polls
President John Magufuli promises to continue fight against corruption if re-elected, but critics accuse government of narrowing political freedoms in lead-up to polls.
A week from now, Tanzanians will head to the polls to decide who will be the country’s next president.
Incumbent John Magufuli is widely expected to win re-election despite the recent return to Tanzania of main opposition challenger Tundu Lissu, who took exile in Belgium after suffering 16 bullet wounds when he was shot by unknown assailants in 2017.
In the run-up to the October 28 polls, opposition parties have complained of threats and repression, and rights groups have accused the government of curtailing free expression and press freedom. The government has previously rejected such accusations.
Last week, Amnesty International said in a new report Magufuli’s government has built up a formidable arsenal of laws to stifle all forms of dissent, effectively clamping down on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“Tanzania has weaponised the law to the point that no one really knows when they are on the right or wrong side of it,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s director for East and Southern Africa. “Politicians have been arrested for holding or attending meetings, media houses suspended and banned, online activism criminalised and NGOs stifled with endless regulations.”
In August, Lissu’s party Chadema said its offices in the northern city of Arusha were firebombed and destroyed.
“No amount of terror and intimidation will stop this tsunami for change in Tanzania,” Lissu said shortly after the incident.
But analysts said the opposition’s chances of an electoral upset are slim.
“President Magufuli retains a strong core rural support base, among which his anti-corruption drive and pursuit of major infrastructure projects remains popular,” said Fergus Kell, projects assistant at Chatham House.
“He will also have significantly benefitted from considerably wider media coverage throughout the campaign period, whereas reporting on the opposition candidates has been minimal, particularly from state media outlets.”
Lissu, meanwhile, has questioned the independence of the electoral commission, whose ethics committee on October 2 barred him from campaigning for a week over alleged violations while campaigning. Dozens of opposition candidates, meanwhile, have been barred from running in the polls.
Earlier this month, Lissu told Al Jazeera that the opposition was “not going to accept stolen elections”.
“We will call millions of our people onto the streets who will take mass democratic and peaceful action to defend the integrity of the election, to defend their voice – if it comes to that,” said Lissu, who has also been endorsed by leaders of the ACT-Wazalendo party in what has been dubbed as a “loose” coalition between the two main opposition parties.
More than 29 million people are eligible to cast their ballots next week in some 80,000 voting centres spread across the country.
Magufuli is seeking a second and final term as the candidate of Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), a party that – along with its predecessor, TANU – has uninterruptedly governed Tanzania since independence in 1961.
A former minister of public works nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his no-nonsense approach and his ability to get things done, Magufuli has been crisscrossing the country pledging to continue the fight against corruption and wasteful spending of public money.
Since taking office five years ago, Magufuli has fired several senior officials over alleged corruption and mismanagement of government contracts.
“There are consequences for anyone involved in corruption now,” David Kafulila, a former MP and a CCM member, told Al Jazeera. “Many officials have been prosecuted and others have lost their jobs.”
In 2015, Tanzania was ranked 117 out of 198 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year, it stood at 96.
Magufuli, 60, also severely restricted foreign trips by public civil servants, a move that resonated with many Tanzanians. In a 2017 report, the country’s central bank said the government had saved at least $430m on foreign travel in one year.
Meanwhile, Magufuli himself has not attended the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York and has not made official trips to Western nations.
While pledging to continue his anti-corruption crusade, the president, from the campaign trail, has also been touting the government’s record of improving infrastructure, including expanding the country’s road and rail network.
Some 3,500km (2,175 miles) of tarmacked roads have been built since 2015, the president said, as he dissolved parliament in June.
A new 300km (185-mile) standard gauge railway line between the commercial capital Dar es Salaam and Morogoro in the country’s east is almost complete, Magufuli said. Another 422km (262-mile) line from Morogoro to the administrative capital, Dodoma, was a third complete, according to the president.
Lissu, during a campaign rally in September, said most of the projects were awarded to foreign firms who took the money out of the country.
And in a speech earlier this month in the northwestern Geita region, Lissu went further and said: “Flyovers, no matter how good, they do not have any impact on the 99 percent of Tanzanians living in mainland regions and have infrastructure challenges.”
In July, the World Bank moved Tanzania from low to a lower-middle income country. It said Tanzania’s gross national income (GNI) per capita increased from $1,020 in 2018 to $1,080 last year, exceeding the threshold of $1,036 for lower-middle income status.
The World Bank said the upgrade was due to the country’s strong economic performance over the past decade that saw it recording on average real gross domestic product (GDP) growth of more than six percent.
While economic growth is expected to slow down this year due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, analysts still expect the country to perform better than most others.
With its economy largely open, Tanzania stopped releasing figures about new COVID-19 infections and deaths in April. The same month, Magufuli ordered a herbal remedy from Madagascar, whose efficacy has not been proven scientifically, to treat the virus.
By June, Magufuli had declared the country of almost 60 million people coronavirus-free, saying prayers had helped eliminate COVID-19.
Tanzania’s response to the pandemic has been chided by the World Health Organization, while opposition figures have accused the government of covering up the true extent of the outbreak, allegations which government officials have denied. Lissu has described the government’s handling of the pandemic as a “national embarrassment”.
Kell, the analyst, said Magufuli’s government “emphasised that protecting the economy and minimising food insecurity were a higher priority than suppressing the virus”.
He added: “These are valid concerns, particularly when considering the prevalence of Tanzania’s informal economy. But Magufuli’s approach has been undermined by the complete lack of transparency and the suppression of dissenting voices.”