AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED
After six decades on top, Tanzania’s ruling party is finally running out of options
Tanzania’s main opposition party, Chadema, is using the country’s newfound political space to embark on a massive grassroots mobilisation of Tanzanians. The sheer size of the rallies has been remarkable, especially for a non-election year.
When Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu was arrested last Sunday, it was almost six years to the day since he was gunned down outside his home by thugs believed to have been sent by Tanzania’s strongman president John Magufuli.
Lissu, police explained, was picked up to prevent him from addressing an “unlawful assembly” — a human rights rally to protest the removal of Maasai residents from their ancestral lands adjoining Ngorongoro to make way for a hunting lodge for Arab sheikhs.
Lissu was later released on bail, but the gulf between the “bulldozer” Magufuli, who criminalised opposition politics, and his reform-minded successor Samia Suluhu Hassan suddenly did not seem that wide after all.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Tanzanian Spring? First female president takes country back on the road to democracy
The arrests were ill-timed ahead of Monday’s launch of Samia’s “political parties council” to promote her four Rs — Reconciliation, Resilience, Reform and Rebuild — which Lissu’s party, Chadema, boycotted.
Clearly, Samia’s honeymoon with the country’s main opposition party is over, and there are fears that the process of dismantling 60 years of authoritarian rule in Tanzania has stalled.
There was genuine excitement in January when Samia, who became President after Magufuli succumbed to Covid in March 2021, opened Tanzania’s political space by allowing political rallies, restraining the security forces, and granting the opposition access to state media.
Lissu returned from exile in Belgium to find the Tanzanian Spring underway and told Daily Maverick: “I am almost pinching myself. I believe that we are going to pave the way forward for a new Tanzania”.
Old order dictates
But opposition leaders warned that the country was not out of the woods yet and that the real work still lay ahead. It soon became clear that “negotiations” for the new Tanzania were a charade and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) had no intention of seriously listening to, let alone implementing, any of Chadema’s carefully formulated proposals.
Mostly, Samia was not willing to entertain Chadema’s core demand for a long-delayed constitutional review before the 2025 elections. People need to be educated about what is at stake first, she said, the “mother ship” was not the preserve of politicians.
Speaking on Monday, she took exception to some of the “impolite behaviour” and “insults” that have apparently been bandied about at Chadema rallies, presumably by firebrand speakers such as Lissu, and said that her reforms were being abused.
Either way, there was little on offer this week to tempt Chadema back in, and not much reward for those smaller parties like ACT Wazalendo, the leading party in Zanzibar, who attended the meeting.
Chadema had anyway taken a different path: using the newfound political space to embark on a massive grassroots mobilisation of Tanzanians. The sheer size of the rallies — notably in the Lake Zone — has been remarkable, especially for a non-election year.
Any misapprehension by the CCM that it was safe to relax controls because the opposition had been weakened by its enforced hibernation during the Magafuli years has been quickly dispelled.
Chadema has been clever about the battles it has picked with the government, such as taking up the cudgels on behalf of the Maasai, a marginalised group who have long been treated as second-class citizens.
Dubai Ports World controversy
But Chadema’s masterstroke was to take a stand against a government deal with the Emirati company Dubai Ports World (DP World) that would cede the management of all of the country’s ports — on sea and on lake — to a foreign entity.
The government justified the deal, saying it would upgrade Tanzania’s ports, make them more efficient and foster trade with its landlocked neighbours.
But virtually the entire country is opposed to the deal. Thirty-seven of the country’s Catholic Bishops signed a statement opposing it, insisting that “the majority of Tanzanians do not want an agreement which gives the foreign investor the authority and right to own all the main economic routes”.
Freeman Mbowe, the Chairman of Chadema, told Daily Maverick that the government is trapped in a lose-lose situation.
“We don’t know what kind of internal discussion CCM had ahead of the deal with DP world, but it’s becoming very difficult for the party and the government to pull out of the deal. But if they stick to it, honestly, I can’t see them surviving in the next election.”
Though it is not part of the public discussion, and certainly not proven, many Tanzanians suspect that the deal is favourable to DP World because the officials who negotiated it took a cut — a reason why they are so reluctant to reverse it.
Outrage at the deal springs also from the economic difficulties many Tanzanians face. While the country’s economy is doing well on the surface, ordinary people have been subject to brutal cost-of-living increases, and this adds to a sense of frustration that is often blamed on the government.
One participant at the council of parties meeting this week said he had never seen the CCM so frightened.
“CCM is in a difficult situation,” he said. “For the first time, I am seeing they are worried about their future, even about peace and stability in the country.
“They realise that their lies and propaganda are not working, they are not controlling the narrative. All in all, this adds up to this feeling of insecurity.”
The opposition remains focused on electoral reform, especially the creation of a truly independent Electoral Commission that would ensure a free and fair election.
Samia has promised this reform but, says Mbowe: “They are kind of afraid that any reform that gives a better playing field to Chadema will mean CCM will lose. The pressure within her own party and from the security apparatus has forced her to change her position.”
Samia needs to capture the CCM nomination and win the election in her own right this time — but her approval rating has plummeted. It’s too late to go back to the Magufuli-era repression, which is anyway not her inclination, so the tactic seems to be to delay.
Tanzania is now a two-horse race between CCM and Chadema, but there is also a race to see whether a ruling party that at 60 years has been longest in power in Africa will allow a fair contest and retire gracefully if it loses.
Chadema is taking no chances. It is pressing ahead with political rallies and mobilisation around key issues and reaching out to the international community for support. Its leaders have been in this game long enough to know that having the country on your side is not enough and that miracles are extremely rare. DM
Phillip van Niekerk is the editor of Africa Unscrambled, a newsletter covering the continent in a way you won’t read anywhere else. Get Unscrambled by signing up here. He is also the editorial director of Scrolla Africa.