The Magufuli hangover

When Tanzania’s President John Magufuli died in 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, many hoped for an end to his six years of autocratic rule which saw the country’s civic space all but disappear. After Samia Hassan succeeded him, she assured the country that his authoritarian practices had died with him. Yet a crackdown on opposition to a lucrative new deal to run Dar es Salaam’s port in perpetuity and restrictions on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) suggests otherwise.

In her inaugural policy speech after Magufuli’s death, President Hassan said: “I have heard there are media that were banned. Reopen them, we should not give them room to say we are shrinking press freedom. We should not ban the media by force. Reopen them, and we should ensure they follow the rules.”

Tanzanian journalist Ansbert Ngurumo fled to Sweden in 2017

One of those who heard Hassan’s promises was the Tanzanian journalist Ansbert Ngurumo (left), who had fled Tanzania in 2017 after getting tipped off that hitmen with orders from Magufuli to kill him had checked into the hotel where he was staying.

Speaking to Index from exile in Sweden, he said: “Journalism became a crime under Magufuli”

The omens looked good after Magufuli’s death. After being sworn into office, President Hassan, the newly celebrated “champion” of freedom of expression, seemed to act promptly on her promises. Human rights organisations, who had had their bank accounts frozen, were once again able to regain access. Onesmo Olengurumwa, director of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition of Tanzania, saw the accounts of his organisation released shortly after her announcement.

Media Council Tanzania reported a decrease in cases of arrests and harassment against journalists. It recorded 18 violations in 2022, down from 25 in 2021 and 41 in 2020. In January 2023, Hassan lifted a ban on opposition party rallies.

Yet Ngurumo says Hassan’s speech was disingenuous. “She was insisting that she was the champion of freedom of expression and free speech, whilst in the same breath putting barriers and limits to those same freedoms. Her freedom of expression is ’you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ That is not freedom of expression.”

The early optimism which followed Hassan’s rise to power was short-lived. Although the number of reported cases against journalists has decreased since Magufuli’s death, suspensions, arrests, and harassment remain commonplace.

In fact, the ghost of Magufuli still hangs over civic space in Tanzania and journalists still feel the weight of the legislation passed and enforced during Magufuli’s presidency. Laws like the 2015 Cybercrimes Act, the 2016 Media Act, and the 2018 Online Content Regulations continue to restrict freedom of expression, and create an environment of fear and self-censorship.

According to Ngurumo, “Magufuli had instilled a sense of brutality in the state organs. That spirit of brutality didn’t die with him.”

More recently, Tanzanian authorities have arrested over 20 activists protesting the most recent deal to manage Dar Es Salaam’s largest port, according to Human Rights Watch. The authorities later arrested three lawyers for holding press conferences on the port deal. Boniface Mwabukusi, Willibrod Slaa and Mdude Nyagali were held on allegations of treason before being released four days later.

The controversial deal will see Dubai Port World, a UAE-based logistics company, take over the management of Tanzania’s largest port in Dar Es Salaam. Critics are concerned by the nature of the deal, which sees DP World gain the right to manage the ports in perpetuity, whilst restricting Tanzania’s ability to change conditions of the contract.

Opposition to the DP deal has been stamped out of Tanzanian media. This most recent crackdown puts Hassan’s promises in a questionable light. Old authoritarian practices have quickly come back to haunt Tanzania at the first real threat to Hassan’s leadership.

For Ngurumo, this was just another sinister message to journalists and activists in Tanzania: “These guys were held but they were released. You see, they are just threats to remind them that the government can still do something.”

Those threats seem to be working. Under constant fear and pressure, mainstream Tanzanian media still shies away from criticising the government.

Onesmo Olengurumwa of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition of Tanzania feels that opponents to a deal for Dubai Ports World to take over Dar Es Salaam’s port fear speaking out

Olengurumwa (right) argues that publications have that hangover and feel like they will be treated as they were under Magufuli if they speak up. So they choose to remain silent, especially the mainstream media”.

From Sweden, Ngurumo still regularly writes about Tanzanian politics in his online newspaper Sauti Kubwa which means “loud voice” in Swahili. He knows that his colleagues in the country do not have the luxury of distance.

“Right now, I don’t see media in Tanzania doing their job. I do not blame them because the laws are still very repressive.”

Ngurumo still believes there is a way out: “If one thing should be done it should be amending the existing laws. We are only afraid of the laws. If we had the right laws, we would just do our job.”

Tanzania’s civic space might be at the mercy of the fickle “goodwill” of their new President, but human rights activists like Ngurumo and Olengurumwa are working hard to restore freedom of expression in their country.

Ngurumo still advocates for engagement with the government from exile. “There is back and forth. We don’t want to have to wait until there is another president.”

In their eyes, change can only happen through engagement with the government and community empowerment. Both are part of organisations pushing for the amendment of the Magufuli laws. Olengurumwa added that “if people can see that our constitution is changing and that laws are being revised, then that will also give them the confidence in our civic space.”

Their fight to reclaim civic space after decades of authoritarianism will be hard fought. On 13 October 2023, the Tanzanian Communication Regulatory Authority issued a statement restricting the use of virtual private networks in the country, much to the dismay of human rights organisations.

In their statement, the Tanzania Digital Rights Coalition condemned the move and argued that it corresponded to “curbing freedom of expression and restricting access to unbiased information.”

It seems authoritarian habits die hard. But if President Hassan is serious about her intentions to restore civic space in Tanzania, it is only by breaking down repressive legislation and building the protection of freedom of expression into the constitution that old ghosts can finally be laid to rest.


Tanzania’s president Samia Suluhu Hassan in 2021. Photo: Paul Kagame, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

“Tanzanians want democracy, respect for their basic human rights and dignity” – Tundu Lissu


Campaigners at the 2010 election in Tanzania, when voter turnout was higher than today. Credit: flowcomm/Flickr

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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]