OP-ED

Human rights continue to worsen in Tanzania as Magufuli cracks down on critics

By Tundu AM Lissu 20 May 2019

Tanzanian President John Magufuli in Nairobi, Kenya, 01 November 2016. EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU

Bloggers, politicians, journalists, businesspeople, artists, musicians — anyone critical of Tanzania’s President John Magufuli — are being rounded up on spurious charges. Some have been abducted and tortured, others have had money extorted from them. It is time for Tanzania’s friends in the international community to mobilise and speak out.

The human rights situation in Tanzania has continued to deteriorate. In early May 2019, Mdude Nyagali, a prominent opposition activist and popular blogger, was snatched from his office in Vwawa, a small town in the south-western Tanzanian region of Songwe.

According to his own account, he was abducted in broad daylight by armed assailants in two SUVs who fired into the air to disperse a crowd of people who rushed to his rescue.

He was bundled into one of the waiting cars which were then driven off at high speed. For the next four days, Nyagali was horribly tortured in secret locations before being dumped unconscious in the bushes in the neighbouring region of Mbeya, more than 100km away.

His release followed a national uproar over his abduction. Even though the Songwe regional police authorities denied any involvement in his abduction, strangely, they refused to open an investigation file.

Even stranger, but perhaps not entirely surprisingly, Paschal Haonga, Nyagali’s own Member of Parliament, who was the first person to publicly report his abduction, was arrested upon leaving the Parliament grounds in Dodoma, Tanzania’s legislative capital, and spent the night in police custody.

Another opposition MP who demanded a government statement on Nyagali’s abduction was threatened with “helping the police”, a euphemism for arrest, by the country’s deputy minister for home affairs. With the news of the abduction and disappearance beginning to appear in the international media, Nyagali was released, badly bruised and battered but, thankfully, alive.

Mdude Nyagali is no ordinary blogger in Tanzania. For more than three years he has been one of the most vociferous and fearless critics of President John Magufuli’s autocratic rule.

As a result of his strident criticism of the president, Nyagali has long earned the ire of the country’s intelligence and security apparatus. This is not the first time he’s been abducted and tortured. In August 2016, he was similarly abducted with dozens of other bloggers and online critics of the Magufuli regime in its first countrywide crackdown on dissent.

He was driven more than 1,000km to Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, where he — and 18 other bloggers — were detained and repeatedly tortured in secret locations controlled by the intelligence and security apparatus.

They were all released after two weeks, following my personal intervention. After being tipped off where they were being held, I made their incarceration and torture public at a press conference and threatened to go to the High Court of Tanzania for habeas corpus.

Nyagali was later charged with cybercrime offences, but was acquitted after a lengthy trial. Nyagali has never stopped denouncing the Magufuli regime and its torturers for what they did to him during that first stint in captivity.

This time around, he blasted President Magufuli repeatedly during the latter’s official visit to the south-west.

He tells me that he received anonymous tips that intelligence operatives would go after him if he didn’t leave the Songwe region during the president’s official visit. He refused to budge.

He also refused to temporarily leave the country when friends and party colleagues implored him to do so on account of the increased threats to his life. As he himself told me, he doesn’t want to flee into exile because “there’s still a lot of work to do in the country”.

He is clear in his appreciation of the personal danger to himself, but remains convinced that the Magufuli regime must be confronted and resisted, rather than fled from.

Nyagali’s travails must be seen in the context of what has happened to countless others since Magufuli came to power in November 2015. With 58% of the official vote, Magufuli’s popular mandate was the smallest since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Tanzania in 1992.

He did not waste time before launching a vicious crackdown on the country’s organised opposition and civil society. Hiding behind a dubious war on corruption and a rhetoric of economic nationalism, Magufuli imposed an illegal ban on political activity by all political parties except his own.

Using a wide array of repressive laws, he undertook a vicious crackdown on free speech and civil liberties, shutting down newspapers and radio stations and jailing journalists, bloggers and online critics of his regime.

No section of the country’s population has been spared. Businessmen, big and small, have been targeted for abduction, illegal detentions and extortion, using charges of economic crimes and money-laundering offences as the preferred tool.

Performing artists, musicians and even religious leaders have not escaped the clutches of a regime hell-bent on imposing total government control on the country’s politics, economy and society.

This heightened repression has not succeeded in silencing the country’s opposition or civil society. On the contrary, the opposition to the autocratic regime has deepened and become more generalised.

Because of its erratic and ill-conceived economic policies, business confidence has plummeted, investment both local and foreign has fallen sharply and economic growth has stalled.

Such is the dire situation that the Magufuli regime refused permission for the publication of an IMF report showing that the government’s own figures for economic growth were without credibility.

Even Magufuli’s much-vaunted success stories, the acquisition of aircraft for the national carrier and the construction of the standard-gauge railway, appear to be in trouble.

Due to constant questions and unrelenting criticism of the deal, the Tanzania Government Flights Agency, the agency responsible for the acquisition of the aircraft, has been placed under the president’s office, meaning its accounts can no longer be subject to scrutiny by the Controller and Auditor-General and, consequently, are beyond Parliamentary oversight.

As for the standard-gauge railway, there are reports that the Portuguese engineering and construction firm which designed the railway and supervised its construction has pulled out of the project for undisclosed reasons.

Tanzania’s regional and international diplomacy has suffered greatly under Magufuli’s watch. Regionally, the East African community is in deep trouble due to tensions with Kenya over the free movement of goods and services and with Uganda due to the failure to conclude the agreements for the construction of the East African Oil Pipeline from western Uganda to the port city of Tanga on Tanzania’s northern Indian Ocean coast.

Internationally, Tanzania has become even more isolated. Six months after the forced recall of the European Union’s ambassador to Tanzania, Roeland van der Geer, the EU is yet to appoint his replacement and its relations with Tanzania remain on ice.

Such longstanding and generous partners of Tanzania as Scandinavian countries and the US have withheld official development assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars due to Magufuli’s human rights record.

All is not quiet even with China, long seen as Magufuli’s chief ally economically. Only this week it was officially announced that the Magufuli government has scrapped plans for the construction of a mega-port in Bagamoyo, North of Dar es Salaam, which would have been financed and operated by Chinese companies.

Also scrapped is another multimillion-dollar project, the Southern Agricultural Corridor of Tanzania, which was conceived with World Bank support to transform private sector agricultural development in the south of Tanzania.

This is on top of Magufuli’s dramatic intervention and spectacular failure in cashew nut marketing in the same region, which has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings and untold misery and suffering to millions of peasant farmers whose cashew crop was seized at gunpoint on Magufuli’s personal orders and has not been sold to date.

Magufuli’s policies have been a tragedy not only to the country’s democracy and human rights. They’ve also spelled a disaster to the country’s diplomatic and international standing abroad. Their cost to the country’s economic wellbeing will be staggering and long-lasting.

Fortunately, there’s a growing resistance inside the country and a realisation abroad that Magufuli cannot, and should not, be allowed to take Tanzania down the ruinous path of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

We Tanzanians who have borne the brunt of Magufuli’s autocratic rule have a duty to build a strong, broad-based democratic alliance to confront and ultimately defeat this regime at the ballot box.

At the same time, we must ask true friends of Tanzania abroad to support our cause with moral, material, diplomatic and political means to ensure a rebirth of a democratic and prosperous Tanzania.

The alternative, a failed state at the gateway to the turbulent Great Lakes Region of East and Central Africa, is too frightening to even contemplate. DM

Tundu Antiphas Mughwai Lissu is a lawyer, anti-corruption activist and a Member of Parliament for the Singida East constituency. He is the opposition Chadema Party’s spokesperson on justice. In August 2017 he was arrested on allegations of sedition for calling President Magufuli a petty dictator. A month later, unidentified assailants armed with AK-47 rifles followed Lissu from parliament to his official residence in a heavily guarded government housing compound. In his driveway, the gunmen sprayed his car with automatic rifles, hitting him 16 times. He is being treated at the University Hospital Leuven, in Leuven, Belgium, where he has undergone multiple surgeries. The assassination attempt remains unresolved to this day, with no suspects, no arrests and no report of any official investigation.

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