Citizens’ voices: defending democracy in Tanzania

Open submission by Aidan Eyakuze, Executive Director of Twaweza East Africa

“The corrupt and the rich are afraid of me,” said candidate John Magufuli in 2015, while campaigning to be Tanzania’s president. Many had assumed that campaign messages of change and a fearless determination to tackle corruption were merely slogans that would be dropped and forgotten once victory at the polls had been achieved. But President Magufuli took the country by surprise. In his first weeks in office, he seized shipping containers belonging to business magnates and fired officials at the port and the tax authorities, put a stop to most foreign travel by public servants and cancelled Independence Day celebrations, replacing the ceremony with a nationwide clean-up exercise. In subsequent months he fired many hundreds of public officials facing allegations of wrongdoing, and aggressively took on powerful international mining firms.

This caught both national and international attention. Within Tanzania, the president’s approval rating reached the dizzy height of 96 per cent in 2016, and the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? reached across the continent and beyond.

But the story is not so simple. There is another side to the current Tanzanian administration, one that is less likely to attract applause. The first sign came less than three months into the new administration, when the government announced that popular live TV and radio broadcasts from parliament would be stopped, “to allow people to concentrate on their work.” The same logic has since been extended further: the government banned political rallies and meetings in almost all circumstances, “to ensure that people focus on development rather than on distractions like politics.” Existing laws restricting the media have been strengthened and new laws introduced, giving the state extensive powers to control newspapers, broadcasters and even individual journalists. Social media have not been spared: the Cybercrime Act of 2015 has been widely applied against those who criticise the government on social media, and more recent regulations require bloggers to register and pay a licence fee, of US$900 in the first year. Democracy, which had never taken firm roots in Tanzania, is more vulnerable now than at any time in the last 25 years.

The argument is made that Tanzania cannot hope to develop while distracted by politics; that corruption and other forms of wrongdoing are tackled most effectively by centralising power rather than empowering independent institutions such as the media; or even that democracy and human rights are a luxury that Tanzania can only afford when it has already developed. However, while President Magufuli may initially have been very popular, on many of these issues Tanzanians do not agree with the government.

Mainland Tanzania’s journey, first to independence and later to multiparty democracy, is an unusual one (that of semi-autonomous Zanzibar, in turn, is markedly different). There was no significant armed struggle for Tanganyika’s independence, which was granted amicably, if a little reluctantly, by Britain in 1961. There has never been any uprising to overthrow a dictator. Even the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1992 took place without any major struggle – in fact, it was done against the wishes of the public as expressed to a constitutional commission.

As a result, some argue that because Tanzanians have never had to fight for their democracy, they don’t truly value it. Others have elevated the country’s status as an ‘island of peace’ into a rallying cry against any form of dissent. There may be some truth in both these narratives, but there is also evidence to the contrary.

According to data for 2016 and 2017 from the Sauti za Wananchi mobile phone panel survey, Tanzanian citizens strongly believe in transparency. Nine out of 10 citizens (92 per cent) say it is important for parliamentary sessions to be broadcast live, and almost as many (88 per cent) say they should be broadcast even if that means there is less money to spend on development (2016). Seven out of eight (86 per cent) believe giving citizens better access to information would cut down on corruption (2017).

Tanzanians also believe in the freedom of expression. Eight out of 10 (81 per cent) say that criticism of leaders is a good thing as it helps stop them from making big mistakes, rather than a bad thing that undermines respect and unity (2017). Similarly, eight out of 10 (80 per cent) say citizens should be free to criticise the president. However they don’t think this right is respected in practice, as a majority (60 per cent) don’t feel free to do so (2017).

Tanzanians believe in democracy. Ninety-two per cent say democracy and rights are an important factor in whether or not development happens, and 96 per cent say it is important to them to live in a country that is governed democratically (2016). And they understand democracy to mean more than just elections: 86 per cent say having active opposition parties is a very important characteristic of democracy, and 82 per cent say the same about having strong independent institutions that monitor the government (2017).

Tanzanians are also increasingly dissatisfied with the government. The president’s approval ratings fell from that high of 96 per cent in 2016 to 55 per cent in 2018 – a sharp decline in 24 months. Approval ratings for members of parliament and councillors have fallen sharply too.

The challenge, therefore, is to translate popular support for democracy into effective action to protect democratic rights and the rule of law. So how to do this? Here are three ideas.

First, find the institutions that have the strength to stand up in defence of democracy, and work with them. Use the opportunities that these provide and protect them. In Tanzania, this means the courts, religious institutions, independent-minded civil servants, politicians and retired leaders, and a few well-established and respected civil society organisations and research outfits such as the Legal and Human Rights Centre and the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition. When such groups work together, they are far more powerful than when any one of them works alone. When fear of retribution makes one go silent, it makes it harder for others to speak up. And when one stands up, it makes it easier for others to do the same.

This also means involving the international media and, on occasion, the diplomatic community, although this is a double-edged sword. International criticism of new laws that restrict civic space may well have stung the government – even before President Magufuli came into office – into defiance and might have contributed to the government’s decision to formally withdraw from the Open Government Partnership in mid-2017.

Second, find creative ways to shape the public narrative about governance. What is, and what is not, considered legitimate by the public is not fixed. For instance, Tanzania has yet to develop a culture of respect for public demonstrations, but there are increasing signs that this change is happening. Support for proposed demonstrations in April 2018 was twice as high as it had been two years earlier. Previous initiatives successfully challenged the social acceptability of cross-generational relationships, as was the case of the Fataki campaign. Can a similar change be achieved if citizens are encouraged to see action in defence of democracy as patriotic?

Third, find creative ways to bring citizens’ views, experiences and concerns to the attention of national leaders and policy-makers. Leaders are concerned about how they are perceived, and how history will see them. Most also truly want to take the country forward. But in a context where electoral democracy does not provide a fully competitive challenge and where the media are highly constrained from reporting on problems and criticisms, even politicians are starved of understanding of citizens’ daily realities and opinions.

Based on nationally representative panels, our Sauti za Wananchi mobile phone panel survey, the source of all the data cited above, is one way of helping to provide that understanding. This and other surveys can deliver quick reality checks on life outside the bubble of the political and business elites. Such was the case in early 2017, when we reported on a widespread food insecurity problem that the government had been dismissing. Such surveys can also provide feedback on citizens’ views of policy proposals, as happened with the issue of live broadcasts from parliament. Our survey also harnesses the strength of an independent institution, Twaweza, to give cover to citizens who might otherwise feel too vulnerable to openly express any critical views.

Besides this specific initiative, there are other ways to bring citizens’ voices to wider attention – using new technology, for example, or media phone-ins – that can also be very powerful.

In sum, the situation in Tanzania remains both challenging and fluid, and it is therefore too early to draw any categorical conclusion. What we are drawing instead is hope and inspiration from the ways many institutions, from courts to religious bodies, and many courageous individuals within the government, the media, civil society and even the internet, have stepped up in defence of democracy. We can, and we must, work together.