Tanzania’s president ploughs through civil society with latest crackdown

Tanzanian President John Magufuli hopes to return to power in his country's elections on 28 October. (Photo: EPA / Daniel Irungu)

Tanzania continues to stifle civil society and critical views as it heads towards general elections in 2020, with a slew of new legislation aimed at curbing the NGO sector and freedom of speech.

On 19 June 2019, a bill seeking to regulate all aspects of civil society operations surfaced in Tanzania. In unprecedented circumstances, the bill, the Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act no 3 (2019) seeking to regulate civil society by amending all laws governing the sector, was being tabled under a “certificate of urgency”.

The bill was to be reviewed through a public hearing on 21 June and ready for final approval by parliament on 28 June. After concerted efforts by civil society, civil society organisations were invited to appear before the parliamentary committee in Dodoma on 21 June 2019. The bill was tabled despite an incomplete NGO policy review process started in September 2018.

Against these expectations and despite several forums for engagement between the civil society sector and government, the bill was unexpectedly tabled as parliament was going into recess. Instead of the two days initially scheduled for parliamentary debate, the bill was debated for less than three hours and approved.

The amendments which were assented to by President John Magufuli on 30 June 2019 are the latest in a series of legislative efforts to crack down on dissent and criticism in Tanzania. Since May 2015, the country has witnessed an unprecedented spate of legislation that has seriously eroded the considerable democratic gains made since the enactment of a bill of rights into the country’s 1984 constitution.

The Cyber Crimes Act (2015), the Media Services Act (2016), the Political Parties Act (2019), the Online Content Regulations Act (2018) and the Statistics Act (2015) as amended in 2018 have made it criminal for civil society and political parties to conduct erstwhile voluntary activity.

Following pressure from the World Bank amid negotiations for more than $1-billion in financing, the Tanzanian government was forced to hurriedly amend the Statistics Act following the bank’s request in April 2019. Most of the other laws remain intact despite being challenged at various courts including the East African Court of Justice, which ruled in March 2019 that Tanzania had violated the East African Treaty by enacting the Media Services Act (2019).

Since Magufuli’s election as president, alternative voices, including civil society, media and the opposition, have found it practically impossible to survive or operate.

Shortly after the 2015 election, a ministerial decree by the then-minister of information, Nape Nnauye, barred the live streaming of parliament despite widespread public outcry about the move. This was followed by the passing of the Media Services Act setting unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on media houses and journalists to freely exercise their mandate with new requirements for licensing and registration.

By June 2019, the president barred political parties from organising political rallies while receiving the 2015 elections report from the National Electoral Commission. His decree has since been interpreted variably and enforced religiously by law enforcement.

Civil society experienced the wrath of the Magufuli administration in June 2016 after releasing a statement challenging the president’s instruction to expel pregnant schoolgirls from schools. The civil society statement was followed by threats to deregister and ban several organisations. The threats were issued by the Registrar of Societies, the minister of home affairs and by the president himself. They were repeated the following year in April and June 2017 by both the minister and the president. In 2018 the president reiterated his wish to have civil society organisations banned for acting unlawfully and for pursuing a foreign agenda.

In keeping with the president’s stated position, the registrar for NGOs, Marcel Katemba, ordered a nationwide NGO verification process in 2017 which uncovered that many organisations had registered or incorporated in other jurisdictions in search for independence and in protest against the already draconian NGO Act (2012). In a sector estimated to constitute more than 12,000 registered organisations, just over 3,100 were recorded to have been registered as NGOs.

In response, the NGO registrar issued instructions to demand any organisation conducting activities defined as NGO activity to comply with the law by requesting a certificate of compliance from his office. The directive, however, was not backed by any law as civil society reiterated the need to have a concerted dialogue on how best to harmonise sector co-ordination in view of the multiple laws governing the sector. The NGO Policy Review, therefore, provided a critical opportunity to have that conversation.

Nonetheless, with pressure building towards 2020 elections, there was a change of heart in government and a legitimate policy review process was dispensed with. This appeared to be payback for the role played by civil society in the oversight of the most competitive general elections in the country’s history in 2015. At the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party caucus on Wednesday 26 June in preparation for the debate on the bill, MPs were told by the Permanent Secretary for Community Development, John Jingu, that over 3-trillion Tanzanian shillings (approximately $1.3-billion) had been set aside for civil society to work with the opposition to unseat the CCM in the upcoming election and it was therefore critical for them to endorse the amendments despite any reservations they may have had.

These measures have become necessary under Magufuli’s administration due to his failed economic policies that have seen the country record its lowest growth rate in over two decades. His erratic and unpredictable policies have seen the collapse of several key industries including mining, cashew nuts and cotton, which are significant export commodities. The cashew nut industry that had brought in revenues of over $300-million annually has seen revenues plummet to as low as $30-million in the last harvest following the military intervention in the sector, led by Magufuli.

Price controls have become commonplace as the administration seeks to implement a confused communist economic approach in total disregard of the market reforms undertaken in Tanzania since the first batch of civil service reforms in the late 1980s.

Magufuli has witnessed his approval ratings drop from 96% to 55% by mid-2018, primarily due to growing economic hardship in rural Tanzania. With more than $2-billion unaccounted for in the last two national audit reports, the president faces a mammoth task to justify his administration to an increasingly frustrated electorate. His flagship anti-corruption campaign has not resulted in any prosecutions despite the establishment of a dedicated arm of the High Court to tackle corruption and economic crimes.

Magufuli rules by creating fear and insecurity. The economy is nose-diving and critical voices are being stifled. As Tanzania heads towards general elections in 2020 the outlook is indeed bleak. DM


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