Tensions are rising ahead of this Thursday’s opposition protests against President Magufuli’s “dictatorial” leadership.
The opposition has now announced that it will be postponing the 1 September demonstrations.
There will be a solar eclipse in Tanzania this Thursday. Those in the southern part of the country will be able to experience its full “annular phase”. But elsewhere, including Dar es Salaam, it will still be visible with a considerable darkening of the sky expected as the sun slides behind the moon.
In times past, such events were seen by many as bad omens: signs of difficult times ahead. We know better these days, of course.
But another event is planned in Tanzania for the same day, one which makes it tempting to wonder if perhaps our ancestors knew more than we think: 1 September is also the date chosen by Tanzania’s main opposition party, Chadema, for a “day of defiance”, and a confrontation looks likely.
Chadema plans to conduct demonstrations across the country in protest at what it describes as President John Magufuli’s “dictatorial” style of government. They will rally under the banner Umoja wa Kupinga Udikteta Tanzania (UKUTA), meaning “Alliance Against Dictatorship in Tanzania”.
The police have refused permission for the protests, accusing Chadema of setting out to disturb the peace. But party leaders insist they will go ahead regardless, arguing that it is their constitutional and democratic right to do so. Repeated calls for dialogue from theRegistrar of Political Parties, religious leaders, human rights groups, the media and others are yet to bear fruit.
Indeed, recent days have only seen tensions rise further. A series of highly visible police “training exercises” last week that involved testing weaponry and firing tear gas was seen by many as a deliberate warning to potential protesters. Then the appalling, cold-blooded murder of four police officers on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam – for motives that remain unclear – understandably angered the police, who explicitly blame Chadema for the killings.
The police have also publicly warned people against participating in the planned protests and claimed the opposition is paying people to cause trouble. “A person should compare the value of payment offered and that of their broken leg,” said a police spokesman. “Should anyone choose to ignore the warning we welcome them for a showdown.”
Such posturing has been fanned by public statements by political leaders calling for heavy handed policing. “I direct my police that if you find troublemakers, beat them without mercy,” said the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda, adding “If anyone talks about human rights, send them to me.”
If the protests do indeed go ahead, it looks certain that they will be met by angry, armed police confident that they have the backing of some particularly macho politicians. The chances of a calm, peaceful outcome look slim.
Magufuli: anti-corruption hero or dictator?
So how has Tanzania’s celebrated – and deserved – status as an island of peace in a troubled region come to be under such threat? In particular, is there any merit in the opposition’s description of President Magufuli as a dictator?
Since coming to power in late 2015, the President quickly established a reputation as a fearless campaigner against corruption and inefficiency. #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? asked surprised and impressed Twitter users from across Africa and beyond, bursting with admiration. Within Tanzania too, his determination to “pierce the boils” of corruption and clamp down on tax evasion won him huge public popularity and has put the whole civil service on notice.
His slogan #HapaKaziTu! (“Work! Nothing Else!”) turns out to bear far more meaning than most observers expected during last year’s election campaign. And policy measures such as the abolishment of school fees and a cut in the basic rate of income tax are also popular.
But there seems to be another side to this drive and single-minded focus: an intolerance of dissenting views. As a relative outsider in CCM party politics – he was an unexpected choice as the party’s presidential candidate and lacks a strong base within the party – many observers feel Magufuli lacks confidence in his own position and compensates with bold shows of strength.
Even on election night, an opposition data centre was raided by the police. The same then happened to an independent election monitoring group. And results of the election on Zanzibar – that many believe (with good reason) was won fairly by the opposition CUF party – were annulled.
A few weeks later, live TV and radio broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings werestopped, and since then the list of anti-democratic measures taken by the government has grown almost by the day. Two newspapers have been suspended along with two radio stations. Critics of the president on social media have been arrested under cybercrime laws. The Legal and Human Rights Centre was criticised after calling for the government to respect employment law.
Meanwhile, two journalists, a publisher and opposition politician have been put on trialfor sedition. That politician, Tundu Lissu, Chadema’s Chief Legal Officer, was laterarrested again for a similar offence, and it seems that most opposition leaders have now at some point been arrested or held for questioning by the police.
Furthermore, Magufuli has banned opposition rallies, claiming there is no need for opposition political parties to hold public rallies outside official campaign periods as they distract the country from delivering the government’s development plans. Last week, the police extended the ban so it applies even to internal party meetings. And just yesterday, five senior Chadema leaders, including the party’s 2015 presidential candidate Edward Lowassa, were arrested for breaching this ban. They have been released on bail but are required to report back to the police this Thursday, the day of the protests.
Earlier this month, the President also took aim at “imperialists”, who he said were seeking to destabilise Tanzania in the name of democracy in order to gain control of the country’s mineral and gas wealth.
Add to all this the recent statements of senior government figures in favour of heavy-handed policing and against the opposition’s right to protest and it is clear the concerns of Chadema and others that the country is heading for a dictatorship are more than justified.
A peaceful resolution?
It is impossible to know what will happen on 1 September.
The opposition may call off the protests. They may find themselves without any senior figures still available to lead the protests. They may struggle to mobilise their supporters in large numbers. Tanzania does not have an established practice of demonstrations or a strong public commitment to democratic rights. President Magufuli is undeniably popular, and many may think that the sacrifice of some democratic freedom is a price worth paying.
Meanwhile, for their part, the police may show restraint. Tanzania’s peaceful history is a source of great national pride, and the police are just as human and just as Tanzanian as everyone else. Or, the government and/or the police may yet find a way to defuse the tension through dialogue.
But realistically, none of these scenarios looks likely at the moment. The opposition are desperate. The police are looking for revenge. The government feels insecure. And they are all determined to avoid showing weakness.
Even without the bad omen of an eclipse, it does not look good.
Ben Taylor is an analyst and blogger at mtega.com. He works as a consultant for Twaweza and co-edits the journal Tanzanian Affairs, but writes here in an independent capacity. The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Twaweza or Tanzanian Affairs.