by Ben Taylor
With the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the globe, any major event scheduled for 2020 is vulnerable to cancellation or postponement, but no such decision has yet been taken with regard to Tanzania’s general elections, set for October. Local councillors, MPs and the President will all be up for re-election.
The subject of possible postponement has come up in the media – including an insightful blogpost by Dr Victoria Lihiru of the Law Department at the Open University of Tanzania that looked at the legality of a delay. Dr Lihiru concluded that it would require a constitutional amendment. The only constitutional provisions allowing for postponement of elections apply only if the country is at war. This would need to be supported by two thirds of MPs.
Nevertheless, the starting assumption must be that the election will go ahead.
Free, fair, open and transparent?
Prior to the arrival of the Coronavirus in Tanzania, the coming elections were at the top of the public agenda. In his annual New Year Sherry Party for diplomats in Tanzania, President Magufuli stressed that the elections would be open, transparent, free and fair.
“A general election is mandatory for any democratic nation like Tanzania. Therefore, the government is determined to embrace justice, transparency and freedom during the election,” he said. He added that the government will allow international agencies and observers to come and monitor the polls.
The assurance came just a few weeks after opposition parties, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the international community concluded that local government elections held last November were not free and fair. The main opposition parties boycotted the election protesting what they termed as unfair disqualification of their nominees.
These same groups reacted to the President’s statement with some scepticism. James Mbatia, national chairman of opposition party NCCR Mageuzi said the President had to delivery on such commitments.
“Making promises is one thing but implementing them is totally different; the President should set the ball rolling,” said Mr Mbatia.
Executive Director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre, Anna Henga, said she welcomed this assurance positively, but added that “in my honest opinion, we still have to address the challenges in the electoral system. For example, Opposition politicians have for a long time complained that our electoral system wasn’t free and fair, while we (CSOs) were locked out of the November 2019 civic polls as well as in some of by-elections held recently, this must be sorted out.” Prof Bakari argued that there were signs that the October general election wouldn’t be free and fair basing on the experience on last November civic polls.
CCM’s Secretariat of Political Affairs and International Relations director, Ngemela Lubinga, said that since this statement came from the Head of State, all would be well. “The Head of State has never disappointed us. There is no need to worry. Those who are sceptic of his assurance should understand that he will address any challenges before the general election, if there is any,” said Mr Lubinga.
Nevertheless, opposition party’s concerns appeared reasonable in early March, when CCM Secretary General, Dr Bashiru Ally gave an interview in which he stated that ruling parties only had themselves to blame if they failed to use their control of state apparatus to ensure victory at the polls.
“It’s obvious that CCM intends to use state powers in the forthcoming elections,” said General Secretary of Chadema, John Mnyika, in response. Mr Mnyika also pointed to the government’s refusal to listen to calls for reform of the National Electoral Commission (NEC).
Such calls had grown louder since the new year. Another opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, launched a nationwide campaign in March to push for the establishment of a truly independent NEC. This added weight to similar calls already emanating from CSOs and other opposition parties. Chadema wrote to the President in January asking for, among other things, the formation of an autonomous electoral commission.
Former Foreign Secretary, Bernard Membe, who was expelled from CCM in February for perceived disloyalty, in March joined calls for reform of NEC. “I said it in the [CCM] Ethics Committee and let me say it again: The prevailing political climate calls for an electoral commission which is independent, representative and transparent at both the national and district level [sic]. I, therefore, strongly support all the voices to that effect.”
The Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, told Parliament in February this year that the current electoral commission was already “very independent” as he rejected pleas for formation of independent electoral body.
The independence (or otherwise) of the Commission has become a key point of contention, prompted in part by how NEC acted during the 2019 civic polls and in part by the appointment of Dr Wilson Mahera, a perceived CCM-loyalist as Director of NEC in October 2019. Dr Mahera is a known CCM member who has previously vied for positions within CCM leadership at local level. His previous post was as Acting Executive Director of Arusha District Council, before which he served as Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Dar es Salaam. No reason was given from removing the previous NEC Director, Dr Athuman Kihamia, who served just over a year.
Chadema, ACT Wazalendo and LHRC all expressed concern at the appointment of Dr Mahera. Chadema have argued that it is unconstitutional, since the constitution prohibits any person who is a member of a political party from being involved in the administration of elections. For a similar reason, in 2019, the High Court ruled that District Executive Directors could no longer act as returning officers in elections, though the decision was later overturned on appeal.
Chadema leaders found guilty
Eight senior figures in Chadema, including the party’s national chair, Freeman Mbowe were found guilty of sedition in early March, and sentenced to a collective total fine of TSh 350 million or to each serve five months in prison. Alongside Mr Mbowe were John Mnyika, Ester Matiko, John Heche, Peter Msigwa, Halima Mdee and Ester Bulaya, all prominent Chadema MPs, the party’s Deputy Secretary for Zanzibar, Salum Mwalimu, and former General Secretary Dr Vincent Mashinji, who had since defected to CCM.
The nine had been charged with offences including unlawful assembly, rioting, and making seditious statements in February 2018 during a by-election campaign in Kinondoni constituency in Dar es Salaam. They had denied the charges.
Chadema started a campaign to raise funds immediately after the magistrate’s pronouncement at the Kisutu Resident Magistrate court. Within days, the funds to pay the fines were raised from supporters and all the leaders were released. CCM members similarly raised funds to secure the release of Dr Mashinji.
Under Tanzanian law, any statement made with the intention to “raise discontent or disaffection amongst people or sections of people of the United Republic” is considered to be seditious.
The other main opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, has also faced similar legal difficulties. In February, the High Court judged that the party’s leader, Zitto Kabwe, had a case to answer for allegedly seditious statements made in October 2018. He is expected to face trial later in the year.
Sim card switch-off
Tightened restrictions on mobile phone sim card registration, enforced from January, led to a massive switch off of improperly registered sim cards.
The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) began enforcing guidelines that only people who registered their sim cards using National Identification Authority (Nida) identity cards could continue to use their sim cards. Everyone else had their sim cards disconnected from the network.
However, as not all mobile phone users had a national ID card, this has brought Nida in the spotlight. Long queues were seen at its offices across the country, with some accusing it of inefficiency and mediocrity.
Though the law does not state exactly what forms of identity document are required for sim card registration, a variety of documents such as driving licence, passport and even workers IDs were previously being accepted as proof of identity. But new TCRA guidelines insist that anyone registering a sim card “shall be required to present his Nida ID and fingerprint verification” for the registration.
The initial deadline for re-registration in compliance with the new guidance was December 31, but this was later extended for twenty days. By January 19, a total of 28.4 million sim cards had registered using official ID cards, leaving over 20 million at risk of being disconnected.
After January 20, the switch off was rolled out gradually. Exact numbers are not yet known, but it is thought that over seven million were disconnected.
The largest mobile phone network in Tanzania, Vodacom Tanzania Plc, issued a profit warning in response to the situation. Around 5 million subscribers (around one third of the firm’s total) did not meet the new registration requirements in time, though many were later able to do so.
“The significant number of barred customers will affect revenue growth. The revenue impact, with the increased compliance cost, will also adversely affect our operating profits,” Vodacom said in their statement.