Oct 28, 2020 - World

Tanzania goes to the polls amid climate of repression

Magufuli offers a wave on the campaign trail. Photo: Ericky Boniphace/AFP via Getty

President John Magufuli placed Tanzania in a club that also includes North Korea and Turkmenistan by declaring victory over COVID-19 in June and subsequently blocking the release of any data that could contradict him.

Why it matters: He took a similar approach ahead of Wednesday’s presidential election — denying accreditation to election observers and banning media outlets that contradict the official line. He's expected to win a new five-year term on a playing field that's clearly tilted in his favor.

Driving the news:

  • Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were all blocked on the eve of the election and Tanzania's communications regulator ordered a block on all bulk text messages, per Quartz. Internet access has been slowed significantly.
  • The opposition claims at least 9 protesters were killed by security forces on Tuesday. The U.S. ambassador to Tanzania said he was "alarmed" by those reports, adding, "It’s not too late to prevent more bloodshed! Security forces must show restraint."
  • Earlier this month, the electoral commission temporarily barred Magufuli’s main opponent, Tundu Lissu, from campaigning for using “seditious language” (he had complained that the election was unfair).
  • The electoral commission's members were selected by Magufuli, leading to fears the official election results will be rejected by the opposition.

The big picture: Magufuli has shaped his reputation on fighting corruption and building infrastructure.

  • He was initially praised internationally for his image of austerity and incorruptibility, but he's now more often associated with political repression.

The other side: Lissu, who fled into exile in 2017 after being shot multiple times in an assassination attempt, returned in July to contest the election.

  • “If you cannot buy even your own food, goods roads do not matter,” he has told attendees at his massive rallies.
  • Magufuli’s government banned independent opinion polls in 2018, so Lissu’s claims of majority support are impossible to verify.

What to watch: Anything other than a clear victory for Magufuli would be a shock, particularly since the ruling party has held power since 1961.

  • But Lissu has warned that if his supporters believe the election was stolen, they will take to the streets.
  • The East African country of 56 million people has historically been one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Go deeper