The 2020 general election in Tanzania is becoming a huge blemish on Tanzanian democracy. Held at the end of last month, the CCM incumbent, John Magufuli, was declared the winner by 84% of the vote, with his biggest opponent Tundu Lissu from Chadema getting only 13% of the vote. The ruling CCM also won by unprecedented numbers seats in the union parliament (over 90%), the Zanzibar house of representatives, as well as ward councillor seats, sending the country to a near single party era.
The main opposition parties, Chadema and ACT Wazalendo, have jointly denounced these results, declaring the entire election process illegitimate, citing rigging of epic proportions including reported but unverified claims of ballot stuffing in multiple constituencies and foul play against opposition candidates. They have also called out human rights abuses during the process, alleging that 14 people have died because of excessive use of force by police in Zanzibar.
Opposition leaders and members in different localities have been unlawfully detained during and after the elections. A call for nationwide peaceful protests seemed to go unanswered by the masses and was met with stern warnings from the police. Some opposition leaders like Lissu were forced to flee the country for their safety.
Instead of finding a path to dialogue and reconciliation that allows the concerns of millions of Tanzanians to be addressed, the government of Tanzania has mostly been dismissive of these allegations.
“Tanzanians want democracy, respect for their basic human rights and dignity,” said Lissu while speaking with Index via Zoom.
Until recently Tanzanians put a lot of trust in the ballot. But amid claims that the National Electoral Commission and Zanzibar Electoral Commission lack independence and therefore credibility to oversee a free and fair election, voter turnout has dropped. The chairs and members of NEC and ZEC are appointed and can be fired by sitting presidents of Tanzania and Zanzibar respectively, who may also be candidates in an election.
“Partiality is built into the Tanzanian system, making rigging a systemic problem,” said Lissu.
“Our minimum demand is for an independent electoral commission and substantial reforms in the electoral system,” he added.
But a systematic overhaul will take time.
Zitto Kabwe, a prominent leader from ACT Wazalendo, told Index, “We need a credible and independent investigation into the 2020 election.” He sees an independent investigation as a more immediate first step to restoring trust that has been eroded in the current regime.
Magufuli may have rightly won this election because of his popularity and ambitious economic agenda, but the process that declared him the winner was marred with allegations of irregularities. Agreeing to such an investigation could help clear these allegations and restore trust.
Opposition leaders like Lissu and Kabwe represent the voice of millions of Tanzanians, yet their speech is often vilified as ill will and unpatriotic. In fact, Tanzanians often treat Lissu much like the world treats women who face abuse: When he was shot many times people blamed him and demanded he produce evidence of his own assault; when he was in the news speaking about his attack, people said he wanted attention, that he was slandering the good name of the country, that he shouldn’t air the country’s dirty laundry. And so we find ourselves in a situation where there has been no proper investigation and no arrests for whoever attacked him.
Intensifying censorship in Tanzania has further tarnished the election. In addition to repressive laws that have mellowed the media, as well as stifled civil society and political parties in the past four years, private phone companies were co-opted into shutting down the internet for millions of people during and after the election.
In this toxic environment, the media has suffered further attacks, especially those who work at foreign media, which is tarnished by the brush of colonialism. Journalists and citizens don’t just suffer from the threats posed by this suppressive regime, they have to navigate how any speak highly critical of the government, and therefore country, might be seen as unpatriotic. The result is self-censorship. Writing negative news about your country is a terrifying act.
“We are in an economic warfare, and Tanzanians aren’t strangers to imperialism,” said Wilbrod Slaa, a disillusioned former Chadema secretary general and 2005 and 2010 presidential candidate. There is a mistrust of international involvement.
“What would speaking out do for the country?” several people who didn’t wish to be named asked Index.
But of course democracy demands free speech to be truly free.
“Tanzania has a history of solving its own problems. I wish the government would hear us and come to the table for dialogue and consensus and avoid extreme measures like sanctions,” said Ado Shaibu, Secretary-General of ACT Wazalendo. “We can’t afford to become another Zimbabwe,” Shaibu added.
Tanzania must end its war on dissent. Tanzanians deserve that much.