The Bulldozer crushes rights of Tanzanians
The supposedly reform-driven president is now terrorising the very people who trusted him
During a recent phone call with a Tanzanian journalist and human rights activist whom I know well, many of my questions were met with uncharacteristic silence. My friend is bold, plucky and usually talkative but now it is too dangerous for her to discuss politics. Tanzania’s journalists are being threatened, assaulted and kidnapped, so our conversation was confined to the mundane.
Tanzania, one of Africa’s most stable democracies, is sliding towards authoritarianism. For months, President John Magufuli has been targeting his political opponents, attacking journalists and closing down news outlets. Although his moves have drawn international criticism, he continues his assault on free speech and political rights.
Until recently, Tanzanians believed their country was heading in the opposite direction. After taking office in late 2015, Magufuli introduced a reformist agenda, which earned him high praise. Among his initiatives was a campaign to redirect some public spending to fight cholera and a payroll audit to identify ghost workers — nonexistent government employees that drain about $2-million from the budget every month.
The private sector was not spared, and mining companies have been targeted for underpaying taxes. In fact, Magufuli’s anti-corruption efforts were so popular that many Tanzanians viewed their president as the epitome of morality; on social media, the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo went viral.
But, today, that hashtag has become a parody. By banning protests, closing down media organisations and cracking down on his critics, Magufuli has shown Tanzanians, who have never had a strongman leader, that he intends to follow in the footsteps of the many the region has known.
His assault on press freedom has been particularly troubling. In June last year, authorities ordered the popular Swahili-language newspaper Mawio to cease publication for two years after it ran a story about tax evasion by local mining companies. The article named former Tanzanian presidents Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, which the government claimed was a violation of the Media Services Act of 2016.
Then, in January, five television stations were fined for airing a statement by the Legal and Human Rights Centre about possible rights violations during local elections last year.
Having muzzled traditional news organisations, the state then set its sights on online media. In March, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority began requiring bloggers and digital publishers to register with the government and to pay a $920 licence fee. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations also require internet cafés to install surveillance cameras and bloggers to report onsite visitors and other operational details.
Anyone who posts content that is deemed to “cause annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes” or jeopardises “national security or public health and safety” can have their licence revoked.
Tanzania’s high court has issued a temporary injunction blocking the new regulations but the government is still getting its way. For example, after the influential online whistle-blower site JamiiForums stopped publishing in mid-June because it was in violation of the rules, other bloggers voluntarily followed suit.
Media outlets are not the only victims of Magufuli’s crackdown; civil society organisations are also being targeted. For example, late last year, the government began what it called a nongovernmental organisation “verification” exercise, ostensibly to update the federal database of NGOs, but more likely aimed at curtailing the number of groups operating beyond government control. Registration is so expensive and time-consuming that many organisations have been forced to choose between closing down and operating illegally.
Several African governments have joined civil society groups in calling for Magufuli to reverse direction. But a feeling of impunity is emboldening those intent on silencing human rights defenders, journalists and opposition leaders. In April, efforts to organise anti-government protests were met with official threats and intimidation. One police official even warned that anyone who ignored the government’s ban on demonstrating would be “beaten like stray dogs”.
Such threats come amid a surge in political violence. In September last year, for example, Tundu Lissu, an outspoken government critic, was shot during a failed assassination attempt. Two months later, Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist who wrote several news stories about the murders of local officials and police officers, was abducted and is still missing. And, in February, assailants armed with machetes murdered opposition politician Godfrey Luena outside his home.
Why are Magufuli and his supporters so intent on stifling dissent? Some analysts believe the president is attempting to cement power for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party. Others argue that Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive pushed Chama Cha Mapinduzi elites into the arms of the opposition and that his political survival depends on removing the threat they now pose.
Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for government-sanctioned attacks on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Two years ago, Magufuli, who is known as “The Bulldozer”, came into office vowing to end graft and curb wasteful government spending. As noble as these goals are, they will be overshadowed if he continues his campaign against those who entrusted him with their hopes. — © Project Syndicate
Back-sliding: Tanzanian President John Magufuli began with anti-corruption initiatives when he was elected to office in 2015 but since then he has adopted typical strongman tactics. Photo: Reuters/Emmanuel Herman