Tanzania: Why Tanzania's Trajectory On Civil Liberties Is a Talking Point

Maxence Melo Mubyazi from Tanzania accepting the International Press Freedom Award in New York.

Dar es Salaam — The fact that two international organisations had to launch their reports about Tanzania's human rights situation from a neighbouring country speaks volumes of the seesaw relations between authorities and the civil society. A suspicious reltionship, analysts think may complicate efforts to transform Tanzania for the better - politically, socially and also economically.

On October 28 this year, Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) unveiled their reports from Kenya's capital Nairobi after ruling out that it would be unsafe to do so locally - especially given past experience.

As a matter of course, a local advocacy organisation failed to hold a presser here a week ago for reasons which the organisers said were beyond their control. Twaweza wanted to present findings on the citizens' views on press freedom as part of the commemoration of the International Day Against Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch jointly decried some laws and actions they deem to be repressive, outlining several recommendations on how to change the current course.

Briefly, both reports found that the government has adopted or enforced a range of laws that they think stifle independent journalism, and severely restrict the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as those of political opposition parties. They want the government to repeal all the laws seen as oppressive and were being used to clamp down on dissent, and promptly end human rights violations and abuses. But the government denies any laws were introduced in attempt to target anyone's freedoms.

But, given the increasing antipathy between the government and civil society, it begs the question of how sufficiently - and with what imminence - these and other recommendations to improve the way Tanzania runs its affairs will be worked on to place the country on the right path towards bona fide democracy. Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Augustine Mahiga said the government would evaluate the reports and "issue a statement."

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Participatoty approach

Analysts and experts in legal and human rights issues argue that failure to respond to concerns raised by ordinary citizens and civil societies runs the risk of complicating efforts towards creating a democratic and prosperous nation which emphasises the rule of law as well as citizens' participation in deciding how the affairs that affect their lives should be run.

"Without blinking an eye, I would say that the government is not going to implement any of the recommendations [by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International]," says a political analyst and the executive director of the Tanzania Citizens' Information Bureau (TCIB), Mr Deus Kibamba.

"At a minimum, the government will keep quiet and pretend as if nothing happened. At the maximum, though, the authorities would address the authors of the reports, likely asking them to keep off Tanzania."

Mr Kibamba's take is informed by the trend he says has been ongoing for quite sometime now, which indicates that authorities do not violate people's basic rights out of ignorance. He says it appears that the acts are done with the perpetrators in full knowledge of what they are doing.

In an environment where those in positions of responsibility tend to ignore almost all dissenting opinions - whether local or external- Kimbamba says that you cannot expect much from Dr Mahiga's promise.

Mr Aidan Eyakuze, Twaweza's executive director, is perhaps one of the few leaders of civil society organisations (CSOs) who have attempted to explain the tension existing between the sector and the government surrounding the roles that CSOs should serve in society. The fact that the government prefers CSOs focused on service delivery activities over those working on raising citizens voices and advocating better policies partly help explain why some people's pessimism over the government's unwillingness to work on the issues raised by CSOs is somehow justified.

But, according to Mr Eyakuze, the distinction should not be as simplistic as this - and, thus, should never be expected to make the government stubborn in implementing the recommendations of the CSOs it does not like. Writing in an Oxfam blog post in 2018 - soon after the conclusion of that year's CSOs Week - Eyakuze noted: "For uncontroversial services to be delivered well to those needing them most, civic space must, crucially and contentiously, be open. Without freedom of information and expression, people will not know what they are entitled to. Without freedom of assembly and association, the gap between a distant and powerful government becomes almost unbridgeable. Without human rights and the rule of law, citizens have little protection from corrupt or bullying officials."

Public service delivery

Thus, he suggests, CSOs that work to protect and promote open civic space are also working to strengthen public services and improve people's lives. Though they may be doing so indirectly, their contribution is just as valuable and necessary - and, therefore, they should be listened to when they warn.

JamiiForums co-founder Maxence Melo says negative attitude towards dissenters complicates efforts to transform that which those in leadership wished for.

In support of Mr Melo's argument, Mr Kibamba comments that only if those in decision-making positions learn one historical lesson: that nothing makes one happier than listening and working on their citizens' views and concerns!

One political analyst, though, had a different perspective on the willingness of the government to work on recommendations to improve the situation of human rights. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the analyst in one of the foreign embassies is of the view that if you look at the records of human rights in the last four years, there is a notable improvement in the way the administration has fared in the field.

"Objectively, the situation has improved on the ground - and this implies that the authorities have been taking notice of the concerns raised, and responded to them somehow. Even regarding these latest reports, the administration may pretend not to care but it surely would listen. Of course, it may not implement the recommendations as they are in the reports, but it will definitely make use of the reports to assess itself and make amends," said the source.

But will it? Mr Ngemela Lubinga, CCM's secretary for International Relations appears dismissive of the recent reports as he is apprehensive of their actual goal. From previous statements he has shared with The Citizen, Mr Lubinga is one senior CCM official who is convinced that there is a segment within the society which wants to wreak havoc.

In the interview for this article, however, he denied any violation of human rights in Tanzania, stressing: "We cannot run our affairs as a nation based on how the international community perceives us. Rather, we will live by the rules and norms of our country as an independent nation. We cannot implement recommendations that are not aimed at creating peace - but aim at dividing the nation."

A culture of fear

In an attempt to explain how, as a country, we are caught in the current situation, political activist Bob Wangwe says other than those in power, the people themselves shoulder a bigger portion of this burden of blame.

"We have a tradition which is very ominous, if you ask me. A tradition whereby people tend to fool themselves that they are not interested in politics and would rather concentrate on doing their own thing. In a situation like that, those in power know they will do anything and get away with almost everything," says Mr Wangwe who recently lost a case in the Court of Appeal to challenge the use of District Executive Directors (DEDs) as returning officers in elections.

Mr Hebron Mwakagenda, the chairman of Tanzania Constitution Forum (TCF) says any fingers directed at Tanzania should be understood.

"People have to be vigilant. They need to understand that there is not a single government in the world which gives its citizens freedom on the silver platter. No government has ever shown mercy on its citizens - and allowed them to hold it (the government) accountable. People need to wake up from their slumber, take an active role in public affairs - and demand their leaders to uphold democratic and human rights principles," said Mwakagenda.

The MISA-Tanzania chairperson, Ms Salome Kitomari, said the government should work on the recommendations of Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch as they all seek to lift the ruled.

She says the government has been reluctant to implement some of the issues proposed by interest groups like journalists - like amending laws that make the professional life of journalists difficult.

According to the anonymous source mentioned herein above, changes in any society are brought about by a coalition of various centres of power - political parties, CSOs, NGOs, the media and others - with the ruling political party playing an important role in steering the wheel to 'fasten' them. He nevertheless was disappointed with the country's ruling party, CCM, saying it is currently not up to the task especially in the areas of warning and directing its government, a claim Mr Lubinga denies.

"The ruling party is the last line of defence in an environment like ours where CSOs and the political opposition are weak and often distrusted and, thus, easily misled. The [ruling] party is above the government - and has an obligation to hold the government accountable," says the source.

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