Opposition leaders in Tanzania have accused police of shooting nine people dead during protests against alleged rigging on the eve of elections in which John Magufuli, one of Africa’s most controversial leaders, could win a second term as president.
The unrest broke out overnight in the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, an important tourist destination.
Trucks loaded with soldiers, police and a militia linked to the ruling party known as “zombies” – clad in black with their faces covered by bandanas – were seen driving throughout Zanzibar City, while witnesses described security forces beating civilians.
Millions are due to cast their votes on Wednesday in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in Tanzania. Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), said Tanzanians were hoping for change. “Excitement is very high,” Kabwe said.
The ACT Wazalendo, which has repeatedly accused the government of undermining democracy and curtailing fundamental freedoms, said its leader in Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, had been arrested.
Magufuli, whose forthright style has earned him the nickname “the bulldozer”, won praise when he came to power in 2015 for his high-profile efforts to crack down on corruption and government spending, but he has since been accused of mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and repression of dissent.
However, analysts say Magufuli’s brand of populist politics and promises of economic development have gained him a solid support base, especially in Tanzania’s vast rural areas, which should win him a second term.
“Effective leadership must plan and prepare well,” the 60-year-old politician told a rally in northern Tanzania last week, reeling off figures on how government revenues had nearly doubled, helping to fund a railway, a dam and a revived national airline.
Opposition leaders say there have been widespread human rights abuses and attacks on democratic institutions under Magafuli’s rule.
“Our motto is freedom, freedom, freedom. People want to be free to express themselves; people want their vote to have a meaning. This election is a very important one for our country,” Kabwe said.
The government has denied clamping down on dissent, and its spokesman Hassan Abbasi said elections were held under the supervision of the national electoral commission (NEC), which is supposed to be impartial.
The opposition claims the NEC has systematically supported Magafuli and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM) by disqualifying its candidates or ordering them to pause campaigning.
NEC officials deny any political agenda. “Why should the commission disqualify you if you meet all the criteria? It is not true,” said Emmanuel Kawishe, the NEC’s legal services director.
Human rights campaigners have raised concerns about restrictions on opposition politicians and the media. Magufuli’s government banned public rallies in 2016, and at least 10 Tanzanian media outlets were banned for periods ranging from one week to indefinitely between January 2016 and July 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Rules introduced in August require foreign journalists to be chaperoned on assignments by a government official, and Tanzanian broadcasters must seek permission to air content produced by foreign media.
International campaign groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Reporters Without Borders have said repression of the opposition, activist groups and the media has increased as the polls near.
“The use of the law to systemically and deliberately clamp down on people’s inalienable human rights, especially in an election season, is an extremely worrying and unhealthy sign for a country positioning itself for greater growth and development,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa.
Magufuli was widely criticised this year for minimising the threat from Covid-19 in Tanzania and refusing to follow many other leaders on the continent in imposing a strict lockdown. Magufuli did not close churches, saying: “Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus.”
Foreign diplomats in Tanzania described a surge in the numbers of cases of the disease there but local authorities have refused to release any data on infections or deaths since April, despite the entreaties of the World Health Organization.
Tanzania’s LGBT community has faced abuse and a series of crackdowns in recent years. The country’s rapid population growth has meant that, despite decades of strong economic growth, more people are living in poverty than ever. A survey in 2018 found that the priorities for Tanzanian voters were the cost of living, health and jobs.
The government projects that economic growth this year will be 5.5%, despite the pandemic battering tourism in places such as Zanzibar. The World Bank predicts only 2.5%.
“The CCM has done very well in rural areas where people are more reliant on the scant resources of the state. The opposition has begun to build in urban areas where people are better informed,” said Nic Cheeseman, an expert in African politics at Birmingham University.
Opposition politicians fear that Magafuli will win sufficient support in simultaneous parliamentary elections on the mainland and in Zanzibar to allow the two-term limit to be lifted, raising the possibility of the former teacher and chemist remaining in power for decades.
“A lot of the opposition are concerned that the ultimate aim is to get a majority that would allow him to stand a third time [in 2025], and if that happens Tanzania will have gone from being a democracy to a consolidated authoritarian state in the space of six years,” said Cheeseman.
The election is the fifth in the nation of 58 million people since the reintroduction of the multiparty system in 1992. It comes against a background of strong rulers in Africa seeking to hold on to power through managing electoral processes and constitutional change. The CCM is sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-ruling party.
“The upcoming elections will, it seems, be another disheartening exercise lacking the credibility needed to develop a strong democracy,” wrote Ringisai Chikohomero, of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, last week. “Tanzania is not alone among African countries whose electoral processes are a sham.”