Tanzania’s Presidential Election Heats Up As A Strong Political Opponent Returns From Exile

With the October 28th general election fast approaching, many Tanzanians were pleasantly shocked by the return of prominent political figure, Tundu Lissu, after a near three-year self-imposed exile. Lissu was the most threatening opponent to the eventual winner of the 2015 general election, John Magufuli, and his Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. Al Jazeera reports that hundreds met Lissu at the Dar-es-Salaam airport and began chanting, “President, President” in support of Lissu.

If Lissu is truly a well-liked and supported candidate, then why did he opt to leave for Belgium instead of mustering support for the next election cycle? The answer likely falls with the tension between Lissu and Magufuli that led to multiple arrests and even a “rogue” assassination attempt on Lissu.

After losing the election and witnessing the anti-democratic stances that Magufuli was adopting, particularly against free media, Lissu became very outspoken against the country’s leader. Much of this criticism, executed in public settings, led to a total of eight arrests in the years leading up to 2017, with the primary charge being inciting violence. The government found these charges to be grounded in Lissu’s expressed rhetoric, particularly against Magufuli, calling him a dictator in relation to his anti-media stances.

Just two weeks after his most recent arrest there was an assassination attempt on Lissu’s life by a still unidentified assailant. Lissu was shot 16 times, mostly in the lower abdomen area, but was able to survive. It was this attack that prompted Lissu to seek asylum in Belgium. Magufuli was reported to have been outraged at the assailant and sympathetic towards Lissu; this outrage led to a police investigation into finding the shooter, but three years removed from this attack an arrest has still has not been made.

In Lissu’s absence from Tanzania, Magufuli has only extended his presidential powers to further reach all critical media outlets and political dissidents leading many to view Magufuli as a dictator, like Lissu had been saying. “The Bulldozer” as Magufuli is often named – in recognition of his ability to push legislation through Congress – has recently expanded to bulldozing over opponents. One such example is the imprisonment of another opposition party’s leader, Zitto Kabwe, of the Wazalendo Alliance for Transparency and Change. This party finished fourth in the 2015 election and does hold a few seats in Congress. Naturally being an opposition party, they were critical of the CCM and specifically Magufuli which resulted in their jailing, only recently being released after posting bail. Another example of oppressing the opposition comes when a leader of the Chadema party, Tundu Lissu’s party, was brutally beaten with police dismissing the allegations as incorrect.

These attacks on the freedom of speech and particularly the freedom to express differing viewpoints has been met by criticism from many non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch. Calls for free, open, and fair elections refer not only to the polling, but also the ceasing of unlawful arrests of dissidents. One representative of the Human Rights Watch, Oryem Nyeko, said, “That means the government should refrain from arresting critics, suspending or closing media houses, or implanting the myriad of restrictive laws that it has in the past used to clamp down on people that have differing opinions.” This is a powerful statement that speaks volumes to the political atmosphere that Magufuli has created in Tanzania.

With Lissu’s return the political climate in Tanzania has only heated up more which could result in an increase in police violence; Lissu himself should be especially careful given that his attempted assassin is likely still at large. With organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, among others, watching this election quite closely, I believe that Magufuli’s hands are tied in terms of rigging the election. Otherwise he will face the consequence of being labeled a dictator by more than just his political opponents. Kabwe, of the Wazalendo Alliance for Transparency and Change party has said that perhaps the most surefire way to remove Magufuli would be a multi-party coalition, which given the status of Tanzania’s political freedoms may be the best route to take, but only time will tell if Lissu’s party would be willing to enter a coalition.