As Tanzania’s president wins a second term, opposition calls for protests

By Abdi Latif Dahir

After a pivotal poll marred by violence, opposition arrests and accusations of rigging, Tanzania’s electoral commission said late Friday that President John Magufuli had won a second five-year term — a move that led the opposition to call for peaceful protests on Saturday and urge the international community to reject the result.

Electoral observers, both foreign and domestic, said that the vote, held Wednesday, took place amid censorship of political speech that undermined the poll’s credibility and led to widespread fraud and irregularities.

Yet based on the country’s Constitution, once the electoral commission declares a candidate president, no court has the authority to investigate the vote. Given this, the opposition said that its only recourse was to hit the streets to demand an election rerun.

“If we accept this reality, we are going to send the country into a one-party system as Magufuli wants,” Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency, or ACT Wazalendo, said on Twitter.

Tanzania, a nation of about 58 million people, was once seen as a paragon of stability and a growing democracy in East Africa. But over the past five years under Magufuli, the country’s fifth president, it made an about-face as he restricted political and civic freedoms and clamped down on the press and human rights organizations.

The win gives Magufuli a platform to continue with plans for ambitious mega-infrastructure projects, including reviving the national airline, building rail lines and constructing a much-criticized hydroelectric dam. A former chemist and schoolteacher who has also held several Cabinet positions, Magufuli, 61, gained popularity as “the Bulldozer” for his handling of a program to build roads and for his tactics fighting corruption. Magufuli has declared the country “coronavirus free” and has criticized the use of masks or social distancing practices.

The chairman of the National Electoral Commission said that Magufuli had received more than 12.5 million of the 14 million valid votes counted. His main opponent, Tundu Lissu of the Chadema Party, received 1.9 million votes, while Bernard Membe, a former foreign minister representing ACT Wazalendo, received just over 81,000 votes, according to the commission.

The governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, or Party of the Revolution, which has dominated Tanzanian politics since the nation secured independence in 1961, also won a majority of the parliamentary seats in the country’s more than 260 constituencies.

Yet even before the final figures were announced, the opposition had already dismissed the results.

Lissu, who was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt in 2017 and just recently returned home, on Thursday called on the international community to dismiss the figures. He said that his poll agents had been denied access to voting booths and were harassed and beaten by security officers.

“What happened yesterday was not an election,” Lissu told reporters. “It was not an election by any measure whatsoever, whether it’s in accordance with Tanzanian laws or international laws.”

The electoral commission has denied accusations of ballot tampering and stuffing, and called them unsubstantiated claims.

The ACT Wazalendo party said that five of its top leaders in Zanzibar, including its chairman, Seif Sharif Hamad, were arrested on Thursday and some badly beaten. It said that the police had killed 10 people and injured 50 others in Zanzibar before and during the elections, and the party documented numerous cases in which its agents were denied entry into polling stations, along with instances of prefilled ballots and multiple voting.

Tibor Nagy Jr., the assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said on Twitter that he was “concerned about reports of systematic interference in the democratic process,” and a State Department spokeswoman said that the United States would hold “accountable” those responsible for the “use of force against unarmed civilians.”

“It has been tragic to see Tanzania, once a promising democracy, slide into autocracy under John Magufuli’s leadership,” U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

The Tanzania Elections Watch, an independent observer group made up of civil society leaders from eastern and southern Africa, accused the country’s security forces of creating “a climate of fear and intimidation” before and during the polls.

The elections were also marred by social media restrictions, with widespread disruptions in platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter experienced across the country. The authorities also directed telecommunication companies to suspend bulk voice and short messaging services.

Peter Micek, general counsel of the digital rights group Access Now, said that technicians from the Tanzanian telecoms regulator had installed equipment that would allow them to throttle entire networks, block websites and degrade traffic so that video or photos could not be transmitted.

“It appears the regulator rushed to have the technology in place for this week’s election and the aftermath,” Micek said in an email. Internet providers, he said, “knew the installation was coming for several months but were notified only last week of the impending installation and had little say in the process.”

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