News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - East Africa Polarization, Protest, and Politics as Usual

With the opposition divided, Tanzania’s path to meaningful democracy is as rocky as ever

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Supporters of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party celebrate on Thursday, 29 October 2020, in Dodoma, Tanzania, after the party emerged victoriously in Tanzania’s presidential election. 
Supporters of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party celebrate on Thursday, 29 October 2020, in Dodoma, Tanzania, after the party emerged victoriously in Tanzania’s presidential election.  picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Stringer

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” –Oscar Wilde

The 2020 elections have left a deep imprint on Tanzanian society. Gross intimidation achieved through targeted violence by the state as well as the silencing of information and discussions by banning internet access have led to isolation, confusion, hurt, frustration, and anger. Moreover, the country appears to be divided. In the words of opposition parliamentary candidate Vitali Maembe, party affiliation decides the basis of friendship and kinship: “What I have observed as well during this election period is discrimination, to be excluded by friends and relatives as I’m not a member of their party. By giving preference to the party, people forgot humanity and the nation.”[1]

Dorothee Braun is Head of Office at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s East Africa Office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Opposition parties, diplomatic missions of Western countries, human rights organizations, defenders of democracy, and international media have criticized serious irregularities and poll violence, widespread intimidation, killings, and harassment. The writing is on the wall: with an outcome of 84.4 percent of the vote for the presidency and 261 out of 264 parliamentary seats, Tanzanian President “Magufuli has steered Tanzania down the road of an authoritarian one party state.”[2] Taking into account the 2019 local elections that were boycotted by opposition parties and the 2020 voting results for political leadership at the ward level, the opposition is all but non-existent in political decision-making from the local to the national level. It is more than obvious, one political analyst said, that any project the president wishes to implement will be rubberstamped by parliament without scrutiny or discussion. Consequently, the opposition declared the election to be illegitimate, called for peaceful demonstrations, independent and credible investigations as well as fresh elections. Opposition party leaders have continued to address and attack the State for its repressive, at times deadly interventions, including calling for the international community to impose sanctions.

Although electoral politics have polarized Tanzanian society, all sides appear to agree that the president has never tolerated anybody throwing a spanner in the works of the ruling party. The question remains, however, why to this extent? How can such a manoeuvre – totally disregarding any ensuing loss of legitimacy and with no one left to blame besides his own machinery – be interpreted? And what does this episode say about our agency and understanding of democracy?

The state holds a monopoly over information and decides to which extent its citizens are entitled to obtain content. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between fake and real news, as everything can appear equally legitimate on the internet. This is due to people’s lack of faith in the mainstream media, which have been highly censored by state agencies in recent years, leading people believe whatever is posted on in social media. The extent to which the internet has become the source for manipulative information constructing particular narratives can best be shown by the joint statement of the European Union to the United Republic of Tanzania on the electoral process that was issued via Twitter on 2 October 2020. It explicitly rejected allegations of one-sided support by the European Union for one or the other party or candidate.[3]

The following therefore is an attempt to trace and question different narratives circulating around Mainland Tanzania that persist, contradict, or disappear without being dismissed or corrected. These narratives are described without linking them to subjects of speech unless clearly marked otherwise.

The Agency of Language

In her reflection on “linguistic vulnerability”,[4] Judith Butler analyses excitable speech acts that either translate into direct action or produce certain consequences, although the speech itself and its consequences are temporally distinct. Speech may reinvoke or reinscribe structural relations of domination. Besides that, it has also the potential to insinuate itself into action. “How do we imagine that speech is heard, taken up as motivation, mechanically or contagiously inducing the listener to act?”[5]

In Tanzania, violent, threatening rhetoricity has become an instrument through which power to silence dissenting opinions within or outside the ruling party line is exercised. In many instances, speech collapses into direct action, such as immediate dismissal or a court ruling. In the context of the recent election, powerful statements are imagined to have triggered a multitude of actions that cumulated landslide victory of the ruling party. There are indications that the election outcome came as a surprise. In a context in which the president is endowed with immense powers, an act of speech can insinuate actions that cannot be controlled and were neither planned nor wished for, but nevertheless call for corrective measures. If those who are in charge of the election are repeatedly reminded by the president that “the cars they are driving are given by him, refuelled whenever needed by him, and their salaries are being paid by him”, it becomes not only a threat but a quasi-impossibility to declare the opposition the winner. If anything, it fuels eagerness to display one’s loyalty.

Injurious language, such as the use of monikers like “lying president”, has been a feature of speeches held by leaders of the opposition, in particular presidential candidate Tundu Anthipas Lissu of the main opposition party Chadema, prior to and during his campaign rallies. The ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM) has demonstrated a substantial amount of tolerance, especially in a social context in which leadership is highly respected and symbolizes national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the opposition discourse revealed critical, potentially destabilizing trends, such as the recourse to ethnicity in public sector hiring, or the current regime’s preferential treatment of Christianity over Islam. It was applauded by many for demonstrating public opposition to the population. The large crowds that Tundu Lissu was able to attract must have shaken the ruling party and evoked memories of the 2015 elections, in which the CCM cadre Edward Ngoyai Lowassa, despite being accused of economic corruption, crossed party lines and won 6 million votes for Chadema. 2015 also marked a turning point for Tanzania’s main opposition party. What was regarded as a strategic move by some has been seen as a downfall by others, as their steadily growing support within society through movement building on the grassroots level as well as their democratic principles were subordinated to the priorities of party personalization and imagined electoral success.

International Interference

There are, however, other interpretations that depict Tundu Lissu, who survived an assassination attack in 2017 and has lived in Belgium since, as being backed by international interests. While campaigning, he not only made reference to Western development concepts by outlining increasing trade, private-public-partnerships, and a friendly investment climate as central pillars of economic growth and job creation, but his campaigns were also accompanied by threatening letters sent by the international law firm Amsterdam & Partners (London/Washington) addressed to the Tanzanian leadership. The campaigns were monitored and commented on across social media platforms by the opposition’s presidential candidate’s international lawyer as well as by Vanguard Africa, a US-based foundation with an increasingly questionable reputation in African politics. Both organizations are said to substantially finance opposition candidates in various African countries, and strengthening their international profile and visibility. In addition, internal discords over (economic) interests appears to have robbed European diplomats in Tanzania of their rapid response instrument of issuing a joint statement to an evolving crises in their host country. In light of these facts, the type of victory achieved by CCM can be interpreted as a direct answer of the Tanzanian state to assumed Western attempts to influence elections to advance their economic and geo-strategic interests.

It remains a matter of speculation whether or not the Tanzanian state feels threatened by the international network, visibility, and resources that Tundu Lissu can draw upon in fostering his narrative of a “murderous regime”, recently demonstrated by a debate in the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. The latter generated mixed reactions in Tanzania, as it was framed on social networks like Twitter as laying the ground for economic sanctions. The official response by the Tanzanian ambassador in Brussels and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister remained defensive, or invoked the country’s founding father, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who had rejected any attempt to compromise the country’s sovereignty in exchange for foreign aid.

Revisiting the Concept of Liberal Democracy

When assessing the discourses that seem to be accepted and produce truths, it becomes pertinent to question our definition of democracy in view of two particular features: checks and balances on state powers as can be found in the classical examples of liberal democracy, as well as the agency of the “popular” or working classes. Are multi-party systems and free elections sufficient to dismantle the legacy of authoritarianism, structural and institutional violence inherited from colonial states?

Simultaneous liberation of both—the political and economic spheres—in countries along the capitalist periphery, where the state is forced to withdraw from providing public goods, has resulted in a boomerang effect. It has since further undermined organizational capacities within society to push for reforms and transformations or hold the government accountable. In Tanzania, independent organizations outside the state representing different social groups have been profoundly weakened since independence. Instead, party structures were set up that provided space for deliberation. But while visiting different regions in Tanzania in 1986–87, the nation’s founding father Julius Nyerere “..found that, at all cell and branch levels, the party had become increasingly inactive. Meetings were not being held and, if held, they became a channel for top leaders to make speeches and pass on decisions and instructions from higher levels. He emphasized that lower organs of the party were fora for democracy; they were the party’s lifeline allowing leaders to feel the pulse of the people. He constantly reiterated the need to revive grassroots organs of the party and for leaders to pay attention to the problems, views and opinions of rank and file members”.[6]

It is against this backdrop that the concept of democracy, mainly defined and organized in terms of middle-class aspirations, needs to be revisited and broadened to integrate the realities of the masses, that is to say, provide for mechanisms to reconcile conflicting interests and asymmetric power relations. The right to the city for street vendors is a fitting example in this regard. It is worth mentioning that when confronted with the reality on the ground while campaigning in rural areas, , Tundu Lissu, who criticizes the Tanzanian government for its nationalistic policies, was pushed by working people to revise his stance and talk about nationalizing land. This incident adds a powerful twist to Ndongo Samba Sylla’s remarks on public disillusionment around political liberalization in Africa, which “is essentially because the public space that it has contributed to broadening quickly shrivelled up along partisan and electoral considerations, thus depriving citizens of any major political involvement. Instead of strengthening popular sovereignty it has rather asphyxiated it and denied it any autonomous political expression”.[7]

Conflicts and Disorganization within the Opposition

“I can’t demonstrate to secure the dining table for someone who forgets us as soon as she/he is elected into office.” –Comment in a discussion about the elections on social media

In a recent online press conference, Tundu Lissu and the leader of the opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), Zitto Kabwe, were asked why their call for demonstrations remained unheard. Both politicians cited the brief arrest of party leaders organizing demonstrations amidst a wave of detentions, internet bans, and the heavy presence of state security organs as reasons, but that Tanzanian citizens were prepared to struggle for their cause. They pointed to Zanzibar’s long history of controversial, closely fought, and violent elections, and the 2011 demonstration in Arusha organized by Chadema.

Other voices, however, described the opposition parties as utterly unprepared to launch a timely response. Neither long-term planning, trust, clear channels of communication, nor a uniting and appealing agenda that includes the struggles of working people seemed to have been in place. The call to demonstrate has been interpreted as a request to risk one’s life for someone else’s income, and places a question mark over the limits of democracy narrowly defined as multi-party politics and electoral processes. In a way, the incident refers to the lost momentum in the run-up to the 2015 elections, where a united opposition was backed by a vigorous popular movement on the ground. Thus, despite the state’s attempts to suffocate the opposition, the 2020 silence combined with the low turnout of about 50 percent demonstrates the apparent detachment of political parties from people’s realities and the general mistrust of the political system.

A Tanzanian Political Thriller

On the night of Sunday, 1 November, Chadema national chairperson Freeman Mbowe, former lawmaker Godbless Lema, and the former mayor of Dar es Salaam’s Ubungo municipality were briefly arrested, allegedly for planning countrywide demonstrations and—as announced by Lazaro Mambosasa, Dar es Salaam’s regional police commander—mobilizing youth to instigate criminal activities during demonstrations, contrary to the public call for them to remain peaceful. The claim was widely dismissed as an attempt to delegitimize the opposition and legitimize denying people their constitutional right to protest. The event was followed by police interrogations of top party leaders and escalated into a diplomatic tug-of-war. While Tundu Lissu found refuge at the residence of the German ambassador to Tanzania, Godbless Lema is in the process of seeking asylum in neighbouring Kenya—a move framed by Tanzania's Inspector General of Police (IGP) Simon Sirro as an attempt to taint the country’s image.

The police’s claims of incitement to unlawful action and violence have disappeared without being corrected or resolved. It thus remains unclear whether they still inform state actions. or the opposition, they are now confronted with the difficult task of explaining to people in the village why some of Chadema’s top leaders who called for demonstrations, including their presidential candidate, quickly went into hiding and crossed borders for their own security.

After his “forced return” to Belgium, feeling his life was in danger, Tundu Lissu stated publicly that he will keep fighting against the incumbent regime by continuously informing the global public and forging alliances with governments, human rights organizations, and other institutions seeking to provide strategic guidance to pro-democracy leaders. While this is not the place to analyse whether or not these institutions have effective and transparent accountability mechanisms for their sources of funding, it can be questioned whether their engagement—often ignorant of the political context on the ground—might create further risks, dependencies, or influences that are detrimental to strengthening democracy in the long run.

The Opposition’s Dilemma

Article 78 (1) of Tanzania’s constitution assigns every political party that receives at least 5 percent of votes in a parliamentary election an equivalent number of seats for women to strengthen gender issues in parliament. Based on that, the 2020 elections results entitled Chadema to send 19 female party members to the parliament. This has posed a serious dilemma for Chadema. Accepting the 19 “special seats”[8]reserved by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) would allow for visibility as well as generate income for the party through state subsidies and the benefits resulting from members of parliament’s contributions, which has become a tradition within Chadema. Rejecting the opportunity would compel the party to stand firm on its claims of electoral fraud and continuous harassment. Proponents of accepting the 19 special seats, on the other hand, argue that the party has always claimed that the elections were fraudulent, particularly in 2010 and 2015, but still never stayed out of parliament. Why do so now?

After weeks of reported push and pull over whether to accept the 19 seats, 19 women leaders created new facts on the ground, throwing the party into uncertainty. Of the 19 women, five had been Central Committee members assigned to top positions in the party, including in Baraza la Wanawake Chadema (BAWACHA), Chadema’s powerful women’s league. Most had previously been MPs and were given better chances of winning the elections. One of them was imprisoned before the campaign started, whereby others had to attend hearings in pending court cases. Led by the chairperson of BAWACHA, Halima Mdee, the 19 women took the oath as Members of Parliament before the Speaker in Dodoma on 24 November—apparently without a clear mandate from their party. The daily newspaper The Citizen reported one day after the swearing-in that “the party had maintained a studious silence since then despite swirling rumours that its leadership was under pressure or torn down the middle about accepting the 19 seats. The swearing-in therefore culminated tense days that have left the party exposed and its fan base likely disenfranchised, if the furious reaction online was anything to go by. The conflicting statements yesterday by some of the women nominees and Chadema Secretary General John Mnyika only added to the confusion around the matter.”[9]

From the perspective of the ruling party, the manoeuvre is strategic, although rules are said to have been infringed and procedures not been followed. It can also be interpreted as a corrective gesture: soap to clean the country’s tainted image. It may also spark hopes that these women leaders will not shy away from challenging government functionaries in parliament.

Chadema’s political rifts became evident when the party’s Central Committee expelled the 19 women from the party three days after taking the oath. The long silence between the party’s decision and a press conference in which the 19 stated their position provided ample ground for issuing poisoning accusations and contradicting information that fuelled an already polarized debate about treason and guilt. Their “autonomous” move has been blamed on narrow self-interest, nurtured by narratives around outstanding debts caused by private funding of campaigns, or else crossing party lines as other Chadema cadres have done. Internal party disputes were dragged into the public eye by launching attacks against central figures’ privacy, notwithstanding their potentially disruptive and damaging effects. Others ask who within the party has the right to decide which women will represent Chadema in parliament?

On Masculinity

One could argue that in the context of a politics dominated by “toxic” masculinity, this move can be construed as putting the opposition symbolically in their place by demonstrating the ease with which the ruling party can attract 19 women to leadership positions, taking advantage of internal fractions and stalled deliberations within the opposition party. While the ruling party’s Secretary General invited the 19 leaders to become members of CCM in response to their expulsion, the Speaker of Parliament rejected the thought of dismissing their membership in Parliament, stating that the decision to expel them was nothing but an expression of entrenched patriarchy within Chadema’s top leadership. As if to demonstrate the argument voiced by the Speaker, the chairperson as well as the Secretary General—who acknowledged the huge contribution the “women soldiers” have made to the party—proposed to the 19 women leaders to submit a letter of apology in exchange for the continuation of their party membership, thereby re-establishing the balance of power and gender relations within the party.

To complicate matters, the exclusion of the 19 from parliament has not been effectuated yet. This would require an official letter sent by Chadema to the Speaker of Parliament to inform him about decision to expel the 19 from the party.

What Next?

Reading between the lines, this Tanzanian political thriller can be understood as the expression of a crisis of ideology, of differing interests within political parties that appear to be in disarray, and of an absence of intellectual voices formulating critical positions. The crack-down on corruption, which has resulted in an increasing centralization of decision-making within the ruling party, as well as the silencing of critical voices along party lines may intensify existing tensions and fractions within CCM.

It follows that the future of multi-party democracy in Tanzania will depend on the ability of political parties to resolve internal conflicts, reorganize internal practices, and develop accountability mechanisms. To a large extent, it will depend upon whether or not spaces for deliberation at all levels, from the grassroots to national politics, can be secured. This could pave a path in which development can be imagined from the viewpoint of the working people, the parties’ ideological stances can be revisited, and conflicting interests negotiated. 


[1] Kingine ambacho nimekiona na kukiishi kwa kipindi hiki ni Ubaguzi, kubaguliwa na Marafiki na ndugu kwa kuwa sikuwa kwenye chama chao. Watu walisahau utu na utaifa wakaangalia Chama.

[2] Nicodemus Minde, “How Magufuli has steered Tanzania down the road of an authoritarian one-party state”, The Conversation, 15 November 2020.

[3] “Following the circulation of fake news about alleged electoral polls and statements by the European Union concerning the upcoming elections in Tanzania, the European Union affirms that it does not support any specific candidate or party and that any declaration by any elections stakeholder claiming either EU support for, or criticism against, participants in the elections is completely unfounded.”

[4] Butler, J., 1997: Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative, New York: Routledge.

[5] Ibid., p. 21

[6] Shivji I.G. (lead author), 2020: Development as Rebellion: A Biography of Julius Nyerere: Rebellion without Rebels, Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers.

[7] Sylla, N.S., 2014: “Liberalization and its Discontents: Social Movements in West Africa”, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, p. 25.

[8] The special seats are strictly reserved for women, and represent the equivalent of about 5 percent of the total parliamentary votes cast for a political party.

[9]The Citizen, “Chadema thrown into uncertainty“, 25 November 2020.