Before the death of President John Magufuli, Tanzania was transitioning into an autocratic state, hitting every hallmark for an uneven democratic playing field. Using both traditional and stealth authoritarian tactics, media outlets and opposition parties’ repression, the lack of government transparency, and civil liberty limitations have led to democratic decay.
Since the 2015 election, the opposition parties in Tanzania are on an uneven playing field against Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). In Leviskiy’s Why Democracy Needs an Even Playing Field, there are three thresholds for the regime to meet to ensure a fair democracy. Magufuli uses state institutions to enable CCM; party loyalists influence regional and local governments, and local party cells monitor the citizen’s expression and social media. The judiciary is run by CCM, along with the police. Both institutions are underfunded and are under constant political pressure to benefit the regime. The opposition parties are systematically handicapped to favor CCM. The 2019 Political Parties Amendment threatened with legal action against opposition parties on the mainland and Zanzibar. The amendment gives CCM party loyalists control over the registrar of political parties, allowing them to ban parties and jail anyone engaging in unauthorized civic activities. The legal action was in line with other restrictions on both civil liberties and the opposition. All political rallies are banned, and any additional assemblies are registered. However, there is still widespread police violence and oppression of any political activity except for the actions of CCM.
Opposition leaders have faced harassment, violence, and criminal charges before the 2019 National Assembly elections and the 2020 presidential election. Both Mdude Nyagali and Tundu Lissu of Chadema, the largest opposition party, have faced violence to knock them out of the election. Nyagali was abducted and beaten by police in May of 2019, and Lissu survived an assassination attempt before going into self-exile in 2017. The violence and intimidation targeting the opposition caused a boycott of the 2019 National Assembly elections, giving CCM 253 out of the 264 seats. The recent Presidential elections also came under scrutiny by the opposition and international community. Lissu claimed millions were turned away from the polls, internet disruptions, and at least a dozen were killed on Zanzibar the night before the election. International election NGOs were under a gag order, and a 2016 law was used to take legal actions against politicians who disclose any government information without permission. By restricting the opposition’s ability to be elected and any outside source of verification, CCM has shifted the field so far in their favor they no longer have to worry about electoral outcomes.
The censorship of the media had been the keystone of Magufuli’s authoritarian strategy. Starting with the Media Services Act, a partisan committee has the authority to revoke any media company’s license and police any published content. The act outlines prison terms, fees, and other penalties for publishing “defamatory, seditious, or other illegal content.” However, there is no clear definition of what illegal content is or how it is determined. Independent journalists and tv stations were the hardest hit by the Media Services Act. Three TV stations were fined for broadcasting a legal and human rights press conference, and multiple journalists had their licenses revoked and threatened with jail time. The 2015 Cybercrimes Act and 2018 Electronic and Postal Communications Regulations expanded monitoring to online content, forcing bloggers and owners of discussion boards to pay more than $900 in annual fees. Freedom of speech activists found freedom of the press violations has tripled since Magufuli first took office. Each act is a further attack on freedom of expression and privacy rights. In the run-up to the 2020 election, the foreign press was required to have a chaperoned by a government official, and Tanzanian media companies need to seek permission before publishing any foreign content. The suppression of foreign press has limited any outside coverage or check on the Tanzanian government. Further restrictions are placed on publishing any data or statements contradicting the National Bureau of Statistics, making it illegal to have outside verification of data or independent research. Magufuli’s media strategy is in line with stealth authoritarianism. Amnesty International’s Deprose Muchena outlines how Magufuli has weaponized the law to quiet any dissent. The suppression of media, NGOs, civil society, and the opposition is legal and done under the guise of protecting democracy. Journalists are shut down through the law, manipulation, and violence, therefore limiting any check on CCM’s transparency and the ability to dissent.
Each action taken by President Magafuli has been a move towards executive control. The Council on Foreign Relations does not call Magafuli a populist. Still, it does point to his populist language as some of the reasons Tanzania was primed for authoritarianism. Years of frustration around limited public service capacity and corruption reached a high threshold, and citizens looked to a charismatic leader to cut through the red tape. Magufuli was presented as a “bulldozer” who will end public corruption and move Tanzania away from the US’s influence. CSIS’s evaluation of Tanzania’s government called Magufuli’s “Tanzania First” approach toxic, putting growth and development before democracy and human rights. President Magufuli blamed many of Tanzania’s problems on its colonial past, claiming Tanzania was “cheated out of wealth by imperialist.” Magufuli instituted nationalist economic policies, renegotiating and redefining economic ties with Europe and the US to limit foreign direct investment and refusing to ratify the agreement to establish the African Continental Free Trade Area. President Magufuli was adamant in his COVID-19 denial, saying God would protect Tanzania and questioning western vaccines. The pandemic was used as a loyalty test for members of the government and citizens. Each action taken over the last 6 years was made to entrench CCM’s power beyond the subsequent few presidents. As Levitsky points out, electoral fraud is minimal, but the uneven playing field comes from years of suppressing the opposition and the media. Voters want the economic success and protection promised by CCM but have no opportunity to see a different option.
President Magufuli was reelected in 2020, where Tanzanians had to choose between economic growth and democracy. After his death in March, newly inaugurated President Hassan has made promises to come back to democracy including restoring media licenses. However, Hassan has yet to define the rules for reversing the democratic decay, but the opposition says actions speak louder than words.