The Bull­dozer crushes rights of Tan­za­ni­ans

The sup­pos­edly re­form-driven pres­i­dent is now ter­ror­is­ing the very peo­ple who trusted him

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Tel­dah Mawarire

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

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