Tanzania’s civic space – constrained and confusing

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The saga surrounding the controversial Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between Tanzania and the Emirate of Dubai has truly tested President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s tolerance of her critics and, importantly, her resolve to protect and expand civic space. The agreement forms the foundation for discussions to have the Emirati state-owned container terminal giant DP World manage seven berths of Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam port.

Sadly, the outcome of this test has been disappointing. Many critics of the deal have been harassed and intimidated. A prominent lawyer and rights activist has fled the country after receiving death threats following his criticism against the deal. Earlier, he was ordered to report to the police over an investigation regarding the comments he made on the social media platform Clubhouse.

A well-known opposition supporter and government critic based in Southern Tanzania has also been summoned by local police regarding the comments he made and circulated on social media. He was also ordered to submit his electronic devices for investigation. Meanwhile firebrand opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, has been accused of using humiliating language against the president when criticizing the deal. The Minister for Information, Nape Nnauye, accused Lissu of disrespecting Samia as the president and mother, and called on mothers in the country to rebuke Lissu for his words. Lissu was later summoned by the police, but refused to show up, dismissing the summons as baseless.

A lawyer on the frontline of opposing the deal has been questioned for eight hours but was later released without charges after the police confiscated his electronic devices. Yet despite the lack of charges, the Attorney General has filed an application to get him barred from practicing law based on “professional misconduct” for a comment he made at a press conference.

Baseless police summons, confiscation of electronic devices, and disbarments of critical
advocates were favorite tactics used during the administration of former president John Magufuli to intimidate and harass dissidents. Now many early cheerleaders of Hassan are surprised and disappointed to see these tactics making a comeback.

So what is the outlook for civil society? In three words, it is constrained and confused.

On the one hand, President Hassan has maintained her rhetoric about reforms and the embrace of democratic principles, even as she has failed to back them up with concrete actions. The inter-party dialogues she initiated with the opposition have lost direction and appeal. There is also little to show for the 4 Rs – Reconciliation, Resilience, Reform, and Rebuild – she that announced a year ago to much cheer. Moreover, President Hassan’s promise to rejoin the Open Government Partnership, a global anti-corruption platform, remains just that, a mere promise.

On the other hand, her subordinates in the government and fellow ruling party cadres have been warning the public – particularly social media users – about the limitations of freedom of expression. This is why the outlook is both constrained and confusing. Either Hassan continues to talk a good talk simply for public relations purposes, or she wishes to reform but cannot persuade the ruling party to follow her. At this stage in her tenurer, the first theory is becoming more convincing.

In many ways, President Hassan has missed an opportunity to effect real and long-lasting reforms in the country. When she came to power in 2022, many cheered her ascent, in part because the pace of democratic erosion under Magufuli has been so rapid. Many genuinely wanted her to be so succesful, on both sides of the political divide. She was Tanzania’s first female president and spoke fluently about the democratic reforms she was about to introduce.

Now the honeymoon is over, and the president has little to show for it. The biggest challenge on Hassan’s table was the delivery of a new constitution. Her predecessor’s abuse of power, often through exploiting a weak constitution, made it clear to the public just how outdated and authoritarian that document is.

This wasn’t a particularly unpopular ask or threatening to Hassan’s own political capital. One of her predecessors had begun a similar process, and her task was only to pick up where the process was stuck and finish up the job. While the new constitution would make it harder for her party to rule indefinitely, it would otherwise have been Hassan’s biggest political legacy. Moreover, her party would probably have found a way to water the document down, leaving some important reforms but enabling it to live with the consequences. Instead, it appears Hassan chose to prioritize her political ambitions over her initial conviction for wider democratic reforms in the country.

This is surprising, in that she has a clear window of opportunity to act. The ruling party has a long tradition of allowing the incumbent to finish two five-year terms, and there was no credible
sign that the party was set to abandon that tradition during Hassan’s presidency. She therefore had no
obvious reasons to neglect her reform agenda to reassure her party of its remaining in
power. Despite this, Hassan appears to have instead set her eyes on her re-election bid in 2025, disappointing those who thought her unusual pathway to the presidency, succeeding Magufuli after he died in office, might mean that she would be more willing to reform than those who win the tough internal battle for the country’s most senior political position.

Having decided against the “reform” option, President Hassan faces the challenge of how to define her own leadership.

Magufuli succeeded in squashing his opponents while resisting both internal and international pressure, partly because he was highly popular among ordinary Tanzanians. Anyone who opposed him was easily dismissed as a puppet of his enemies, who were regularly blamed for Tanzania’s problems. Meanwhile, Magufuli executed populist policies, including letting street vendors and bodaboda (motorcycle) riders do business wherever they wanted. At the same time, his obsession with mega infrastructure projects, such as flyovers, bridges, and markets, served as constant reminders for both his supporters and critics of his commitment to development.

Hassan, on the other hand, lacks Magufuli’s charismatic appear. While she is not infamous, she is not
popular either. People are not sure of the direction of her government, and ordinary Tanzanians aren’t particularly fond of her policies: the eviction of vendors from city centers, the borrowing spree, and the embracing of foreign investors, whom just a few years ago were viewed as thieves and exploiters of national wealth thanks to Magufuli’s propaganda. While many of these policies may be sensible – and even necessary to correct some of the contradictions introduced under Magufuli – this doesn’t mean they plan well with the people.

Hassan is also unfortunate to be the president after Magufuli because it means she cannot claim she does not have the time or power to make the changes she wants to see. One of the lessons Tanzanians learned under Magufuli was that the president has vast powers and influence to change policy incredibly quickly. Magufuli took full advantage of this fact and drove the country into in a democratic direction. When Hassan took over, many hoped that she would use these powers to push the country in the right direction, and few are likely to believe that she simply can’t do this – especially as some of the greater constraints she operates under, such as the influence of political blocs tied to the legacies of former presidents, such as Jakaya Kikwete and Magufuli, in both the ruling party and the legislature, and less visible to those outside of the political inner circle.

Optimists believe that Hassan still plans to make a difference but is leaving it to her last term to implement significant changes, when she no longer has to worry about retaining power. But the Swahilis have a saying, “Nyota njema huonekana asubuhi”, which roughly translated means “A good day starts in the morning”. Hassan’s day is approaching afternoon and there’s little hope that it is set to change for the better.

Sammy Awami (@awamisammyis an independent journalist, media trainer and analyst of Tanzania political affairs.

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