Remembering not to forget: Tanzania’s 2020 General Elections

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A boy runs with a flag during a ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on October 21, 2015/CREDIT: Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images.
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It is one year since Tanzania voted in a contested election. The landslide victory of incumbent President John Magufuli and the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) was marred by reports of massive electoral irregularities and repression of the opposition. The elections represented a significant blow to hopes that the country was on a path of gradual democratization, and pose serious questions about the fate of East Africa’s largest nation which for years served as a beacon of hope and stability in the rather troubled Great Lakes region of Africa.

Tales of the extent of the violent oppression and harassment that surrounded and undermined the elections continue to emerge. More and more people are speaking up, recounting and narrating their ordeals and experiences. Opposition candidates, party agents, female contestants and electoral officials through online spaces are narrating the plight they faced during the elections.

The absence of political space in Tanzania in the past few years as demonstrated by the banning of political party rallies has forced Tanzanians into alternative ways of expressing. With these restrictions, political parties, human rights activists and the general public are now using the online space to discuss issues that the traditional media avoids for fear of victimization. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Clubhouse, Instagram and WhatsApp have been used to discuss critical contemporary issues in Tanzania.

A revolution in civic engagements is being led through Twitter Spaces – a new way to host live audio conversations on Twitter. Clubhouse has become an equally popular social network where people talk, listen and learn from each other in real-time and in Tanzania it has become the theater for the demands for a new constitution and calling for government accountability. Tanzanians are documenting their experiences of the last general elections using organized online spaces. Tanzanian Human Rights activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai has been a vocal advocate and host of such local debates prompting the state to issue warnings and threats against the “unwelcome assembly”.

Demands from the opposition for a new constitution have increased since the death of President John Magufuli in March, 2021. The General Elections of October 28, 2020 were summarily described as not free, not fair and fraudulent. President Magufuli was declared winner with 84 percent of the vote with the ruling party CCM winning 98.8% of the parliamentary seats. In Zanzibar, the situation was similar with CCM’s Hussein Mwinyi also winning by 76.6% of the votes. While the victory for CCM, Tanzania’s long-time ruling party was not surprising, the margins of victory pointed to the extent of the repression and dominant control of the state.

It was a Violent Election

The elections were conducted in an environment of intimidation, censorship and open violence against the opposition. Democratic norms that guarantee civil and political rights, political participation and freedoms were blatantly ignored. The pre-election election environment was characterized by the banning of opposition political party rallies and the arrest and harassment of opposition party leaders. Going into the elections, it was evident that the CCM and the state was determined to win at all costs.

The court case involving the former Hai District Commissioner Lengai Ole Sabaya untethered the extent of politically instigated violence during the General Elections. Ole Sabaya together with five other accomplices were charged with six counts of armed robbery, money laundering, economic sabotage, corruption and leading a criminal gang. This case generated immense public discussion as it epitomized the state-led crackdown of opposition, intimidation and violence.

Testimonies and evidence submitted before the court showed the disturbing extent of impunity in display by government officials. On the armed robbery case Ole Sabaya defended himself on the pretext of orders from the late President Magufuli and that the Finance Minister was aware of the ‘special operations’ in Arusha town. During the elections, Ole Sabaya was spotted in a fake United Nations registered vehicle in Hai, the constituency of CHADEMA Chairman Freeman Mbowe on the day of elections harassing the opposition. Accounts of Ole Sabaya’s impunity in Hai and its environs during the elections were told by contributors in #MariaSpaces on Twitter.

The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 30 years in jail. Godbless Lema, former Arusha Urban MP on #MariaSpaces narrated the extent of extortion and violence in Hai constituency during the elections.  Events in Hai however were symptomatic of the rule of law breakdown that faced the whole country during the course of the 2020 elections and in the period leading up to them.

The immediate aftermath

Following the announcement of the election results, the opposition parties – CHADEMA and ACT-Wazalendo- called a press conference and denounced the results. They also called for a continuous country-wide mass demonstration. In reaction to that, the police force violently arrested the opposition leaders including the chairman of CHADEMA- Freeman Mbowe. The arrest was accompanied by intimidation of opposition candidates. A number of them including Tundu Lissu who was CHADEMA presidential candidate had to seek refuge at the German Embassy as he awaited a safe exit from the country. Godbless Lema sought asylum in Kenya before his eventual exile to Canada.

Exempflying Eloïse Bertrand’s analysis on various ways of engagement by opposition parties in hybrid regimes,  CHADEMA stood its ground denouncing the elections and the government formed therefrom until the calls for a new constitution and an independent electoral commission were met. ACT-Wazelendo on the other hand chose to engage and participate in the newly formed government.

In Zanzibar, ACT-Wazalendo joined the Government of National Unit (GNU) as prescribed in the Zanzibar constitution following the 2010 amendments.  Seif Sharif Hamad , who was ACT-Wazalendo presidential candidate for Zanzibar became the First Vice-President of Zanzibar for a second time since his earlier stint between 2010 and 2015. 

Trumping on the Constitution

To seek legitimacy of the parliament, the speaker of the house in collaboration with the National Electoral Commission (NEC), swore in 19 women from Chadema as special seat Members of Parliament. Chadema protested that they had not taken any list to NEC for nomination as special seat MPs thus denounced the 19 women and subsequently expelled them from the party.

According to the Constitution of Tanzania (Article 67,78) all MPs must belong to a political party thus their continued presence in the parliament is an aberration of the constitution. The conduct of parliament on this matter is a dangerous precedent for constitutionalism in Tanzania especially given the critical role of the house in defending the very constitution.

Continued denial of COVID 19 and Vaccinations

The COVID 19 second wave hit the country hard in February and a number of key government officials presumably died from it. While the Magufuli administration continued with its denialism of the disease some shocking losses were recorded including that of the head of the public service as well as the First Vice President of Zanzibar; Seif Sharif Hamad.  Notwithstanding, the administration continued to deny the disease going as far as denouncing vaccination leaving Tanzanians unnecessarily exposed to the virus and its effects. 

Change of administration

On March 17th 2021, two weeks following his last public appearance at a Catholic church, the then Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced Magufuli’s death. In compliance with the Constitution, she was quickly sworn in as the President.

Following the inauguration, President Hassan’s speeches in her first 100 days of administration were promising with regards to national reconciliation and democratic change. There was fresh air and a new ambiance of relief in Tanzania. For example, President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s first four speeches – one at her swearing-in ceremony, two (here and here) during funeral services of the late President Magufuli, and two during the swearing in of her new cabinet members and Permanent Secretaries for the Ministries – set a new tone, emphasising improving civic space as well as the business environment. Shrinking civic space and the poor business environment were two major concerns during Magufuli’s administration.

Thus, by setting a new tone with directives such as reopening of all banned media outlets and asking the Tanzania Revenue Authorities to ensure taxes are charged in a way that would encourage business growth rather than shutting them down, was a much needed message of hope for many Tanzanians.  President Samia also changed the COVID19 policy as she accepted that the pandemic exists, wore and encouraged the public to wear masks and take precautions while approving the importation of vaccines. Of all the changes she professed, she has done little to ensure civic and political rights are protected.

Mbowe’s Terrorism Charges and Banning Political Rallies

After her 100 days’ honeymoon, President Samia’s promise on political and civil rights has met its stearnest challenge. She has continued the ban on political rallies and  discouraged public debate on the demands for a new constitution on the pretext of growing the economy. Her statement seems to have enamoured the police who were quick to launch an assault on dissenter. Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of the leading opposition party CHADEMA was violently abducted at 2am in his hotel room in Mwanza by unidentified armed men ahead of a planned conference on constitutional reform hosted by his party.

Following his questionable arrest and detention, Mr. Mbowe was charged with terrorism and economic sabotage offences. President Samia’s comments on the case in an interview with the BBC left more questions than answers with some accusing her of political interference in the case. The case has generated both domestic and international attention and by the time of this article’s publication, Mbowe has been detained for 100 days.

2020 Elections Report by National Electoral Commission

The rules and regulations of the elections require the publication of election results within 30 days after the elections. This was not the case with the  NEC who submitted the 2020 elections report to President Samia Suluhu Hassan in August 2021, 10 months following the elections., CHADEMA and other opposition parties boycotted the event pointing to an unresolved electoral impasse. In her speech, the President praised the NEC for carrying out a free and fair election without depending on donors’ support but fell short of addressing any of the concerns observed by the opposition and observers. The President overlooked even calls by the NEC itself for change towards independence of the institution.

President Samia’s appointment of new NEC Commissioners, was only suggestive that no major reforms of the electoral body are in sight.

 What to make of the Samia Suluhu Hassan’s Administration?

The evolution of President Samia’s policy makes it difficult to draw what her driving principles are, especially following the initial euphoria from her maiden speech and address to parliament. In her first 100 days she seemed to have been committed to breaking with the past with much public approval.  Yet she finds herself in a delicate position within her party as she seeks the support of the different political factions while shaping up her own base. She has so far failed to honor her earlier promise to meet the opposition in an effort to reconfigure the largely polarized political order. Her presumptive announcement of the intention to run for presidency in 2025 may yet stir her into further pressure by those in the party who are equally interested in taking the helm thus preoccupying her even further.

The party political dynamics will, arguably, disrupt Samia’s mission and may derail her performance. She has found herself in a 2025 elections tightrope, which will inform her decisions, performance and engagement with the opposition parties. She could borrow a leaf from her own handling of political dispute resolution following the Konde byelection in Zanzibar which has been far more inclusive than on mainland Tanzania.

Where do we go from here?

The 2020 elections in Tanzania will remain on record as one of its kind and a significant dent on the country’s democratic record. Be it as it may, it marked a regression in an erstwhile promising trajectory that saw orderly transition of power albeit within the same political establishment. The democratic credentials demonstrated by Tanzania and particularly the ruling party went a long way in cementing Tanzania’s position as an anchor of peace, stability and national and regional cohesion all of which rely on the credibility of the electoral process. As such, several key reforms will need to happen if both credibility and confidence in the electoral process are to be revived.

Clamor for a new constitution

Realizing a vividly credible, free and fair election in Tanzania may be a far fetched ambition in the current constitutional order. The constitution provides a series of road blocks for such reforms to be achieved. On one hand, the constitution specifically discriminates against those interested in participating in the governance of their country by making it mandatory for those vying for elective office to be members of a political party.

It defeats logic that in the local elections of 2019 for instance where over 90,000 posts are up for grabs, one is required to be a member of a registered political party before they can vie for elective office in the village government. In some villages, the entire population belongs to the same clan and therefore everyone literally knows everyone.

It makes no sense that people who already identify with their family identities must also identify with political parties. For years, the late Christoper Mtikila fought for the right of having independent candidates which is limited by several clauses of the constitution. It goes against fundamental constitutional principles including Article 5 which provides for the right to participate in public affairs.

Further, the provisions of Articles 74 of the United Republic of Tanzania constitution and Article 119 of the Zanzibar constitution are violative of the principle of equality before the law. They create in Tanzania institutions i.e. the National Electoral Commission and the Zanzibar Electoral Commission that have a free pass to violate the law including the constitution by providing unnecessary immunity for commission and omission in the discharge of their functions.

The right to challenge the presidential elections results in court is another important constitutional reform. If the Chairman of the electoral commission was to wake up with a mental disorder and decided to announce Donald J. Trump as President of the United Republic of Tanzania, there can be absolutely no recourse in any courts of law in the current constitutional order. The absence of remedies for challenging presidential results as provided in Article 41(7) is a significant curtailment of the people’s right to elect their leaders.

The whole point of a democracy in the first place is the ability of the people to question their leadership including on such matters as their election. Aware of this anomaly, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) ruled that ​​Tanzania’s constitution breaches the African Charter and other international laws as it bars voters from challenging the results of Tanzania’s presidential elections in court.

Constitutional reforms therefore are an inevitable precondition for ensuring Tanzania can sustain a healthy presence in the global community of democracies.

Electoral reforms

Elections are a cornerstone of any democracy. They are perhaps the single most important opportunity for a citizenry to exercise their fundamental right of choice and participation by electing leaders of the choice while offering themselves up for public services. When democratic principles are adhered to, it is citizens who benefit the most because like any spectators in a match, it becomes more exhilarating when the referees offer a good match officiation. In Tanzania’s case no such guarantee is provided.

The National Electoral Commission and the Zanzibar Electoral commission can operate with maximum impunity. It is in fact the norm that the commissions would be the ones holding citizens (through their organizations) accountable than the other way round. It is citizens who account to the commissions through accreditation for voter education and election observation and not the NEC that accounts to the citizens through a transparent and accountable mechanism. Such was the case in 2020 when hundreds of reputable human rights organizations including the Catholic church were denied accreditation to observe the elections.

Tanzanians hardly know how the decisions of the electoral commissions are arrived at but are forced to consume whatever dictates come out of the NEC. The electoral commission must be accountable to the voters for the electoral process to be meaningful. More importantly it is critical that the process for overseeing the elections is itself democratized by devolving the oversight powers to oversight bodies. It is common in many democracies to have local (district level) electoral boards made up of respected members of their community to supervise elections in their locality.

This greatly adds to the legitimacy and credibility of the electoral process when those responsible to oversee it are known to the voters. A board made up of local religious leaders, members of the business community, trade unions, cooperatives, civil society groups, women’s groups and other willing members of the community could go a long way in reclaiming the people’s confidence in the electoral process.

It makes for little good if elections continue to be supervised by folks from away places seconded and appointed by bureaucrats in Dodoma who have no context of the ensuing local electoral context. As they say, all politics is local and that should include the oversight of elections. A public survey of people’s perception of the electoral commissions could go a long way in reaffirming people’s confidence or lack thereof and their thoughts on how to improve the electoral framework.

Human rights and civic space in Tanzania

If anything, elections should not be a moment when basic rights are violated as reported in 2020. It is the one opportunity for citizens to exercise fully their fundamental rights including the right to information, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, expression as well as freedom from torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

A violation of any of these basic rights puts a dent on the electoral process and in the long run risks creating disillusionment on the part of voters who feel stripped of their right to fully participate in the elections. Perhaps more than any other period in the democratic cycle, authorities ought to be held accountable for their actions and inactions in defense of such fundamental rights.

Due to growing censorship and intimidation by the authorities, Tanzanians were subjected to poor quality news throughout the elections with hardly any public debate on the electoral issues raised by the various candidates. As such, Tanzanians were denied the opportunity to make informed decisions as a result of the constraints posed by the authorities including multiple legislation limiting on media freedom. Without deliberate efforts to revise the legislation, basic rights will remain difficult to realize in the context of elections in Tanzania. Human Rights must be at the center of the Electoral commissions’ agenda.

International engagements and beyond

The international community must not abdicate its obligation towards Tanzania. As an integral member of the regional and international democratic community, Tanzania must demonstrate compliance with the international legal order and democratic norms. Observing such standards therefore is even more critical if Tanzania is to remain among the global and regional community of democracies. To realize this, it is important that the international community begins early any efforts to contribute to a free and fair election in the country. This is all too critical to be left in the hands of only the people of Tanzania especially given the prevalent constitutional and legal constraints.

The global community of democracies must join hands with Tanzanian democratic actors to call on the Tanzanian authorities to live up to the promise of an inclusive and participatory democracy as enshrined in Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals. 2025 is just around the corner.

Nicodemus Minde (@decolanga) is an adjunct lecturer at the United States International University – Africa in Nairobi.

Dr. Aikande Kwayu (@aikande) is a social scientist in Tanzania and an honorary research fellow at the Department of  Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Deus Valentine (@DeusValentine ) is social justice activist leading the Center for Strategic Litigation; East Africa’s leading think tank on the rule of law and constitutionalism.

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