From 2015, ‘unknown assailants’ started a spate of murders in the Pwani coastal region of Tanzania. The epicentre of the shootings was the districts of Kibiti, Rufiji and Mkuranga, and they were brought to light by journalist Azory Gwanda.
Gwanda had moved from his home village of Msimba in the Kigoma region of north-western Tanzania to work as a freelancer in the districts of Kibiti, Rufiji and for The Citizen and Mwananchi newspapers, imprints of Mwananchi Communications Limited, part of East Africa’s Nation Media Group.
Almost every week, Gwanda exhibited great courage as he reported on the grisly murders, over 40 people in a two-year period, the victims including local politicians, government officials, policemen and residents. He became the consistent chronicler of a devastating crime by faceless criminals, but the murders remained unresolved, the culprits not arrested.
The sense of bewilderment at the murders can be seen in Gwanda’s reporting. Leaders as high up in the Tanzanian government as President John Pombe Magufuli and Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa suggested that the government was on the verge of apprehending the perpetrators. Such statements only seemed to fuel the murders. At one point, the police indicated that foreigners were involved in the murders. The objective was to cause civil strife in the region and the country, a senior police officer explained. But no arrests were made.
Nobody was safe from the obscure killers. The murders reported by Gwanda included those of police officers, up to 12 of them, including the local head of criminal investigations. Faced with the perplexing challenge, the police resorted to summary execution of suspects, harassment of residents and imposition of curfews, as reported by Gwanda. At some point, the army was called in.
Then, in November 2017, the 42-year-old Gwanda disappeared.
On the morning of 21 November 2017, he went to a farm near his home where his wife, Anna Pinoni, was working. Reportedly, he was in the company of four unknown people in a white Toyota Land Cruiser. He asked for the keys to his house which his wife handed over. He said he had an emergency, work-related trip and would return the following evening. During this exchange, Gwanda remained in the vehicle and communicated through the car window. The vehicle drove off and that was the last time he was seen.
On returning home, his wife found that the house had been ransacked, with paper scattered all over. She called his mobile phone number only to find that it was switched off. She became even more alarmed when Gwanda failed to return the following evening. She made a formal report at the Kibiti Police Station and case file Kibiti/RB/1496/2017 was opened on 23 November 2018. His employer, Mwananchi Communications Limited, learnt of his disappearance only on 30 November, over a week after his abduction (Kolumbia, 2017).
Searches, investigations and pressure by colleagues, rights campaigners and civic leaders since then have not yielded fruit, giving rise to the grim possibility that he might never be found. A media campaign, under the Twitter hashtags #WhereIsAzory and #BringBackAzory, was launched in December 2017. The highly publicised initiative brought together the Tanzanian media fraternity including the Tanzania Editors Forum, Media Council of Tanzania, the Media Institute of Southern Africa – Tanzania chapter and the Union of Tanzania Press Clubs, led by Francis Nanai, chief executive officer of Mwananchi Communications.
Local and international rights groups weighed in. But to no avail: the campaign has not helped locate Gwanda. Initial statements from the authorities – including the police, government officials and politicians – promising intensified investigations have fizzled out (Legal and Human Rights Centre/Zanzibar Legal Services Centre, 2017).
Gwanda became a victim of the crimes he courageously reported. Most commentators in Tanzania believe his disappearance is based on his investigative journalism work, specifically the murders in Pwani region.
His disappearance triggered debate on the rising violence in Tanzania, a country hitherto considered one of the most tranquil in Africa. Cameraman Daudi Mwangosi died in 2012 after a tear gas canister was fired at him after a quarrel with police officers (Rhodes 2017). In 2013, journalist Absalom Kibanda was attacked, the top of his right ring-finger chopped off, his fingernails removed, his left eye gouged out and he had several teeth knocked out (Rhodes 2013). Spates of disappearances, assaults, killings have been on the rise since the mid-2000s but more so in the past two years. Media reports indicate cases of extra-judicial killings involving the police. These range from cases of the police killing suspects during arrests and in custody to the police abusing their power by killing people who differ with them.
Commentators have cited these events to show that Tanzania has embarked on an authoritarian path under populist President John Pombe Magufuli, marked by inept handling of security situations and a clampdown on all forms of expression. (Legal and Human Rights Centre/Zanzibar Legal Services Centre, 2017)
Opposition politicians, journalists and artists such as musicians have been arrested or otherwise harassed on grounds such as ‘insulting’ the president. In September 2017 for instance, Tundu Lissu, a critical opposition MP and chairman of the Tanzania Law Society, was shot in the capital Dodoma and survived only after being speedily airlifted to Nairobi for emergency treatment. In another case, Godfrey Luena, an opposition politician who campaigned against land grabs, was murdered with machetes outside his home in Morogoro (Kamagi, 2018).
In 2017, a senior regional official stormed a radio station, Cloud FM, demanding that it air a programme critical of his opponent. Arising out of the incident, an information minister, Nape Nnauye, was fired for apparently siding with Cloud FM. In September 2017, Mwahalisi, an independent newspaper, was forced to stop circulation for two years on the flimsy grounds of publishing seditious and false news. Journalists have been arrested arbitrarily. (Legal and Human Rights entre/Zanzibar Legal Services Centre, 2017)
Repressive laws have been enacted, aimed at curtailing freedom of expression. For instance, the Statistics Act stipulates that statistics can be sourced only from official government agencies. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations of 2017 tightly regulated blogging and the management of internet cafés. (Legal and Human Rights Centre/Zanzibar Legal Services Centre, 2017)
Gwanda’s disappearance became the take-off point for discussions on this rise in violence and repression. DM
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