Tanzania will hold its national general election on 28 October in an environment of heightened tensions and allegations of voter suppression and intimidation. These accusations have been primarily directed at President John Magufuli who is running for re-election while critics accuse him of going after opposition members and activists and misusing state power.
Magufuli rose to power in 2015 campaigning on an anti-corruption platform vowing to reform the state bureaucracy and grow Tanzania’s economy. Notably, Magufuli is the leader of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party which has governed Tanzania since 1977. However, the President initially defied his critics and embarked on a major crackdown on corrupt officials and dramatically curtailed government spending, earning him wide praise and the nickname “the Bulldozer”. However, in addition to acting against corrupt officials, Magufuli has steadily dismantled Tanzania’s democratic institutions over the past five years, cracking down on opposition figures and silencing critics. This has been accompanied by an alarming increase in political violence and assassinations.
Less than a year into his presidency, Magufuli set about dismantling his political and civil society opponents and critics. In June 2016, his government instituted a countrywide ban on political rallies outside of official election campaign periods. This prohibition has been almost exclusively enforced against opposition parties with security forces using the broad language of the ban to disrupt opposition party meetings and offices, frequently arresting leaders and members of the two largest opposition parties: the Party for Democracy and Progress (CHADEMA/Chama Cha Demokrasia Na Maendeleo); and the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo/Chama cha Wazalendo). CHADEMA is the predominant opposition party on the mainland while ACT-Wazalendo enjoys significant support in Zanzibar.
The ban on political rallies was used to arrest and charge nine leaders of CHADEMA, including party chairperson Freeman Mbowe, with sedition, after the party organised a demonstration in February 2018. Mbowe and his co-accused were found guilty and given a heavy fine in lieu of imprisonment.
In addition, Magufuli has also targeted the media and civil society during his tenure. In 2016, the CCM passed the 2016 Media Service Act which gave it sweeping powers enabling the government to regulate and ban any media outlet which violates the stipulated code of conduct or meets the nebulous threshold of “threatening the peace of the state.” Naturally, this forced political dissent and criticism online which led Magufuli’s government to pass the 2018 Tanzania Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations. This gave the government sweeping regulatory powers over online content, and defined blogs and other self-publishing social media sites as media platforms requiring official state licensing and oversight. This has widely been viewed as an attack on free speech in the country and successfully silenced much of the domestic online criticism levelled at the CCM.
From the outset of his presidency, Magufuli has clearly had no intention of leaving the 2020 election to chance, having made dismantling the opposition and critical media houses a key aspect of his governance. This trend has continued throughout the build-up to the upcoming October election. In August, it was revealed that at least 1 020 Chadema local councillor candidates and 53 parliamentary candidates were rejected by the country’s National Electoral Commission (NEC). The NEC also rejected 47 ACT-Wazalendo parliamentary candidates. In addition, opposition events, rallies, and candidates have been repeatedly disrupted and targeted by security forces. In June, Mbowe was hospitalised after being attacked by unknown assailants in Dodoma. The culprits have not been found but the attack is almost certainly politically motivated.
Despite his use of the presidency and the CCM’s long hold on power, Magufuli does appear to be concerned about a strong performance by the opposition in the upcoming election. This is likely due to the strength of CHADEMA’s presidential candidate Tundu Lissu.
Lissu is a former human rights lawyer, former president of Tanganyika Law Society (TLS), and a popular parliamentarian who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, forcing him to be evacuated to Kenya and then Belgium. His assassination occurred shortly after he criticised the country’s intelligence services. Lissu remained in Belgium in exile only returning in 2020 to be nominated as CHADEMA’s presidential candidate with the attack making him an opposition hero and martyr, elevating his national appeal. His challenge to Magufuli has been strengthened by a tacit coalition agreement between Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo that they will unite behind Lissu for the Tanzanian presidency and ACT-Wazalendo’s Seif Shariff Hamad for the presidency of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar. These factors have combined to create an unexpectedly strong opposition front.
In response to this threat, the CCM and Magufuli have increased their efforts to sideline the opposition, including security forces dispersing opposition rallies and even teargassing Lissu’s convoy. It also appears that the Magufuli is pressuring the NEC to take a harsher approach towards Lissu. This was illustrated on 2 October when the NEC banned Lissu from campaigning for seven days due to alleged “ethics violations” following CCM claims that Lissu had made “seditious statements” during a CHADEMA rally. The statements in question involved Lissu accusing Magufuli of improperly meeting with election officials. While Lissu has obeyed the ban, security forces have used the NEC order as a justification for harassing the opposition leader and disrupting his personal movements.
Despite the united opposition front and the strength of Lissu’s candidacy, Magufuli is widely expected to win the 28 October election owing to both his general popularity due to his anti-corruption measures and his silencing of critical media. While the stronger than expected opposition campaign will likely lead to a closer race, Magufuli has spent the last five years ensuring that his victory is secured and he retains control of the levers of state, including the security forces and potentially the NEC. Accordingly, voter and opposition intimidation by security forces will increase in the coming days and political unrest and violence are likely.
In addition, given the government’s tactics and the heightened levels of distrust in NEC officials, there is a strong possibility that the election result could be disputed. In this eventuality, protests are expected across the country, especially in Dodoma and Dar es Salaam. Such demonstrations will be forcefully dispersed by security forces and opposition leaders will likely be again targeted and arrested on charges of sedition. Any legal challenge to the election will likely be unsuccessful and as it stands Magufuli is expected to retain the presidency.