Opposition leader Tundu Lissu takes stock of Tanzania as the country heads to an election in the new year. Tom Collins reports for the second part of a pre-election series.
On September 7, 2017, leading Tanzanian opposition figure Tundu Lissu was shot 16 times in the administrative capital of Dodoma while waiting in a parked car outside parliament.
Though the government denies any wrongdoing, Lissu says the event marks a turning point in Tanzania’s history whereby the ruling party and its leader John Magufuli are beginning to use deadly force as an official policy.
Hours before the event, Magufuli, who was hailed as an anti-corruption crusader upon entering office in 2015, announced on local television that those who betray the government’s economic policies will not survive.
An outspoken government critic, Lissu had that day taken to parliament to protest against hefty tax hikes on mining companies, a policy which he believes amounts to little more than extortion.
Almost one week later, the former lawyer awoke in neighbouring Kenya after having spent six days in a coma.
“Something like this had never happened before, such a spectacular assassination has never been a part of our politics,” Lissu told New African from Belgium where he has since been receiving treatment.
“By making it official, by openly encouraging and directing that opponents of the government should be killed, Magufuli has taken it to a new level altogether.”
Yet while the degree of violence is something new, Lissu says observers are mistaken if they believe Tanzania to be an open and peaceful society.
The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party is the longest serving in Africa, a feat which is only made possible through state violence, he says.
“This is where most people get Tanzania very wrong. The Tanzanian government has always been fairly violent in a low-level way against its people. There have been a lot of killings.”
Staging a comeback
Many are worried about the upcoming election which the opposition has already promised to strongly contest.
Coming to the end of his recovery, Lissu says he will return to Tanzania to participate in the democratic process though the exact date “depends on the security situation.”
Planning to return this November, his trip was postponed following concerns over his personal safety.
Lissu, a member of the main opposition party, will throw his weight behind chairman Freeman Mbowe whom he expects will lead Chadema in the upcoming contest.
Despite a crackdown on government opposition including a blanket ban on political rallies and legislation which allows the de-registration of candidates and parties, Lissu is cautiously optimistic about the state of the opposition.
“I would describe the opposition as bruised and battered but not dead and out of the contest,” he says.
The ban on public rallies has forced the opposition to up their game in terms of organisation and communication, Lissu says.
With “stronger underground networks” Chadema will likely join forces with the rising ACT- Wazalendo party which enjoys strong support in Zanzibar.
Only through a broad coalition of opposition parties can Magufuli be defeated, he claims.
Yet as the government continues its crackdown on human rights and freedom of speech, serious doubts persist over the likelihood of free and fair elections.
“I frankly don’t believe that CCM, as it I now, is capable of ceding power peacefully through the democratic transition of power,” Lissu says.
“They will send in the army, they will send in the murder squad.”
Along with the many political issues Tanzania is facing, Lissu remains a steadfast critic of Magufuli’s economic policies – some of which have earned the president praise in wider circles.
Though these objections led to an attempt on his life, the Chadema politician continues to argue that the prime beneficiary of Magufuli’s anti-corruption and resource nationalism drive is the president himself.
A previously little-known figure in Tanzanian politics, Magufuli rose to prominence taking a tough stance on rampant corruption which had troubled the administration before him.
In the first few years of his presidency he was celebrated for trimming public fat, gaining the moniker “the bulldozer” in the process.
Since then the business community has come under repeated attack, with many now detained under charges of corruption or money laundering.
Rather than a genuine attempt to ward against the practice, Lissu believes that the lack of prosecution for those detained reveals a more malign intention.
“There isn’t a single case which has been concluded,” he says.
“Those in prison are told to either pay up or continue rotting. It’s extortion plain and simple.”
So too in other areas of the economy has Magufuli looked to come down hard on those not playing by the rules, particularly in the mining sector.
In 2017, the government slapped a $190 retrospective tax bill on British mining firm Acacia for allegedly operating illegally in the country and for failing to fully disclose its exports earnings over nearly two decades.
Though a $300m settlement between Canadian mining firm Barrick Gold, which acquired Acacia in September, and the government has just been reached, Lissu again questions the sincerity of Magufuli’s interference.
“This is not economic nationalism, this is state orchestrated extortion,” he says.
“What he has done for the past four years is run an extortion racket. Going after the business community local and foreign, shaking them down and making them pay money. If they don’t pay the government will seize their assets and freeze their accounts. Barrick had to pay because they had no choice. They had already invested hundreds of millions of dollars.”
With Magufuli in office “not one serious company” will invest in Tanzania, he adds.
It’s also unclear whether Magufuli’s overreach into the business community benefits the state coffers.
Owing to its socialist past which aimed to erase ethnic identities through the concept of ‘ujamaa’ – meaning national brotherhood in Swahili – Tanzania is rarely discussed through the lens of tribalism, something which so dominates discussions in neighbouring countries like Kenya.
That said, according to Lissu, the beneficiaries of Magufuli’s crackdown on corruption and foreign companies are his people, the Sukuma, who live in northwestern Tanzania near Lake Victoria and make up approximately 16% of the population.
Building an airport in his own village, Lissu accuses Magufuli of acting like one of Africa’s most infamous despots.
“We have a regime which claims to be against corruption but if you look closely enough it is more like Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire,” he says.
“The army chief, the chief justice, the attorney general, the solicitor general, the chairman of the electoral commission, the auditor general are all Sukuma. Everyone is from that region.”
For these reasons, Lissu believes that Magufuli must be unseated in the next election.
“There is a point beyond which we cannot be pushed,” he says.
“Tanzanians may be quiet, but they are hurting and they are getting very angry. When they finally say enough is enough, people will have to tell us whether Tanzanians are as gentle as the stereotype.”
The article is first published in New Africa magazine