OPINION: Tanzania has always been an autocracy
As I write, I am preparing to undergo my 19th round of surgery. My attackers have not been identified, and the government’s response is a wall of silence. A parliamentary inquiry was ordered, but this appears to have been torpedoed as any discussion on the parliamentary floor has been prohibited. To add salt to my wounds, payment of my medical costs and personal allowances – which are my statutory rights – have been withheld.
Three weeks before this mindless attack on me, I had publicly embarrassed President John Magufuli on the national stage. Most of the money he had earmarked for the overhaul of Air Tanzania, which comprised a large part of Tanzania’s foreign-currency reserves, had been squandered. Newly purchased Bombardier aircraft were seized by Sterling Engineering, a Canadian engineering company that had won an arbitration case against the government after a contract to upgrade roads was not honoured. To make matters worse, Magufuli had been minister of works when the government defaulted on the contract with Sterling. By sharing this fact, I hit a raw nerve.
To be sure, my attempted assassination is a dark moment in Tanzania’s recent history, but it is certainly not an isolated incident. Magufuli has overseen a brutal crackdown on the opposition since he came into office in November 2015. I have been arrested six times since then, and my colleague Zitto Kabwe, leader of Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo, has been arrested several times as well. Just two weeks before I was attacked, the Dar es Salaam offices of my lawyer, Fatma Karume, were bombed. There have been dozens of abductions of journalists and politicians, and a litany of attacks by special forces known as ‘zombies’ against opposition members.
But to those who are surprised by these developments, I ask you to consider some history. The very idea that Tanzania is sliding from a beacon of democracy into an authoritarian state is based on a woefully erroneous assumption that we were and have always been a functioning democracy and a liberal state.
If democracy was what we had hoped for, then we were doomed from the day the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) and the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) assumed power. After independence, TANU and ASP laid the foundations for what is now known as the ‘imperial presidency’.
Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, prevented a bill of rights from being introduced. He also passed the Preventive Detention Act, which empowered the president to detain indefinitely and without trial anyone deemed to be a threat to national security.
Just a few years after independence, Tanzania had become a one-party state. But the citizens of Tanzania, confident that TANU and ASP were safeguarding their hard-won freedoms from colonial rule, sat back in trust or in fear, blind to the fact that their freedoms were being systematically eroded by the very people who had fought for this value. Soon enough, freedom was relegated to oblivion, and the narrative became one of ‘nation building’. It would eventually evolve to become Ujamaa na Kujitegemea (socialism and self-reliance), Nyerere’s famous socialist initiative. In reality, the imperial presidency was tightening its grip over the country and a cowed population.
Between 1973 and 1977, more than nine million rural inhabitants – about 75% of the population – were forcibly moved from their ancestral lands to new villages in the name of Ujamaa. No regard was paid to land tenure systems or land rights, and no compensation whatsoever was paid for the destruction of their settlements and loss of their livelihoods. During this period, thousands were detained without trial on Nyerere’s orders; people’s assets were nationalised without compensation; the economy became tightly state-controlled; and the freedom that Tanzanians had expected after independence was replaced with one mantra: “Ujamaa na Kujitegemea.”
Tanzania became a nation consistently on the verge of starvation. Between 1964 and 1984, Tanzania had to be rescued from famine by food aid, grants and loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and donor countries. In fact, our staple food, ugali, made from maize flour, came to be known as ‘dona’ as a result of the hundreds of thousands of packages of maize flour stamped “donor” that came from the United States.
In 1977, ASP and TANU united and formed the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). With that union, Tanzania was given the union constitution of 1977, which entrenched the one-party system, defined Tanzania as a socialist country and fortified presidential imperialism. It was not until 1984 that concessions – in the form of a watered down bill of rights and presidential term limits – were made.
It was only in 1991 that the CCM dared to contemplate the return of multiparty democracy. In 1992, the government amended the constitution to reintroduce multiparty democracy, but the foundations of the imperial presidency were never touched. Each subsequent president has jealously guarded the powers of the imperial presidency, blissfully unaware that one day he too will be a citizen subject to the powers of another imperial president.
Magufuli is different from his predecessors. Former presidents were fully conscious of their vast powers, but they were careful to hide them. They practised the Kiswahili saying ‘ukila na kipofu, usimshikemkono’ (When you eat from a blind man’s plate, don’t touch his hand.) So the blind, both in Tanzania and abroad, believed that Tanzania was a multiparty democracy, while it was in fact a one-party autocracy.
Magufuli has declared an absolute ban on public demonstrations. On the pretext of saving government expenses, Magufuli has banned the live transmission of parliamentary sessions. What is available for consumption is determined by Magufuli, as he warns newspapers, TV and radio stations about their contents. Even social media has been subject to Magufuli’s whims. Youths have been arrested and charged for criticising Magufuli on their Facebook pages. Members of WhatsApp groups have been arrested and charged under the draconian 2015 Media Services Act.
Fortunately for all of us, John Pombe Magufuli sees no reason to refrain from touching the blind man’s hand, and Tanzanians are waking up to the fact that we permitted CCM to take all our freedoms on the pretext of nation-building. With that awareness, trust in those who allegedly brought us freedom is eroding slowly but surely.