OP-ED

My sixteenth arrest: The struggle continues

By Zitto Kabwe 29 June 2020

Tanzanian President John Magufuli. (Photo: EPA / Daniel Irungu)

This was simply a continuation of the Tanzanian state’s harassment and intimidation of opposition members and leaders.

There are 118 days to go until Tanzania’s general election on 25 October. And the crackdown from a government fearful of opposition and competition has begun in earnest. Tanzania is currently in the grip of an authoritarian government led by an aspirant dictator who is step-by-step eroding the fundamental freedoms required for a constitutional state founded on civil and political rights to prosper.

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Last Tuesday (23 June 2020), Daima newspaper, owned by Chadema chairperson Freeman Mbowe, had its licence revoked by the government. This comes just weeks after Mbowe himself was violently attacked by unknown assailants outside his home in Dodoma.

Daima has been accused of “breaching the law and professional ethics”. But the Information Services Department could not cite any specific content or examples of what the newspaper had done or what specific law or regulation it had contravened. They haven’t cited anything because there isn’t anything to cite. The truth is simply that President John Magufuli and his government will not tolerate a free press that dares to criticise the government. Freedom of the press and the media is an anathema to the repressive CCM leadership.

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On the same day Daima and its journalists were muzzled, I was arrested by the Tanzanian police while speaking at an internal event of my party, ACT Wazalendo. Tuesday’s arrest marked the sixteenth time I have been arrested since June 2016 and Tuesday evening was the seventh time I have spent the night in a police cell because of my political orientation and standpoint against the current government. The disruption my colleagues and I experienced in Kilwa is also the sixth time an event I have led has been disrupted by government apparatchiks or servants of the CCM.

The meeting in Kilwa was part of a tour I had embarked upon to receive new members. Kilwa was the second stop after Rufiji where we had issued membership cards to new members who joined us from the Civic United Front (CUF). 

When the police invaded our meeting to disrupt proceedings, members of ACT were singing party songs in welcome of our delegation. The meeting was calm and peaceful. The police approached me, saying we had convened an illegal demonstration and that I was under arrest. I was roughed up very forcefully in front of the crowd who were certainly not participating in a demonstration of any kind.

As a kind of afterthought, the police arrested some of my colleagues including former Kilwa South MP Suleiman Bungara, ACT National Secretary for Organisation, Shaweji Mketo and ACT Central Committee member Isihaka Mchinjita. 

The eight of us were forced onto a truck while our supporters and members booed the police and voiced their opposition to the proceedings. The police used tear gas to disperse ACT party members. We were transported to Kilwa police station. Upon arrival, we were asked to make a statement. We refused, asked for details of the specific charges and demanded that we be taken to court. Instead, we were thrown into a crowded police station cell where we remained for nine hours.

The events in Malawi this week have shown Tanzanians what can happen when a nation unites in pursuit of freedom, democracy and opportunity. It is incumbent now upon all of us to make the next 118 days count. The future of our people depends on it.

At 9pm, we were abruptly informed that we were to be transported to Lindi Central Police Station. We were bundled onto the open back of a broken police pickup which took four hours to travel 190km in the pouring rain. At Lindi Central we were put into a small cell together with two convicts serving time for minor offences. We slept on the floor in a cell that was swarming with mosquitos.

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The following morning, we continued to demand that we be brought to court and formally charged. We were informed that the offence had changed from convening an illegal demonstration to one of “endangering the peace”. Yet we were still not taken to court. We were offered bail provided we could supply the names of two sureties living in Lindi. We complied and were subsequently released, just 24 hours after our arrest the previous day. We are due to report to the police at Lindi Urban on Wednesday 1 July from where we may be taken to court.

These series of farcical events on Tuesday and Wednesday are unfortunately a microcosm of what many of our fellow countrymen and women endure daily. This was simply a continuation of the state’s harassment and intimidation of opposition members and leaders. These events, when viewed with the revoking of Daima’s licence, the attack on Freeman Mbowe, and the clampdown on civil society and media, indicate that the election will not be free and fair unless there is a concerted effort to make it so. 

Tuesday was a clear example of the police being used by the CCM to stop legitimate activities of an opposition party and file trumped-up charges against leaders and members. The police should recognize that they are a service, not a force, and are charged with the protection of all citizens and the enforcement of all rights. 

The opposition will not be cowed by the unlawful attempts of the government to intimidate and silence us. We will continue to roll out the legitimate activities of our political movement as we build towards the launch of a campaign to bring happiness, freedom and decency back to Tanzania. President Magufuli and his state cronies will be met with defiance and determination. Our democracy is too important to allow it to be run over roughshod by autocrats and thugs.

The events in Malawi this week have shown Tanzanians what can happen when a nation unites in pursuit of freedom, democracy and opportunity. It is incumbent now upon all of us to make the next 118 days count. The future of our people depends on it. The struggle continues. DM

Zitto Kabwe is the leader of ACT Wazalendo, the alliance for change and transparency in Tanzania.

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