by Ben Taylor
President Hassan gives her backing to calls for a new national Constitution
The government’s task force on political reform, formed by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to address concerns that the country’s democratic process had eroded in recent years, has rejected the idea of drafting a new constitution before the next election in 2025.
The taskforce did, however, accept some opposition demands, including to establish the electoral commission as a more independent body and lifting the ban on political rallies.
In its final report delivered to President Samia Suluhu Hassan in October, the taskforce also suggested that the entire constitutional overhaul that has also been a key opposition agenda might still take longer to be sorted out.
Prof Rwekaza Mukandala, the taskforce’s chairman, said the six-month process they had been through of collecting public views had revealed “deep divisions” among Tanzanians over whether to adopt a new constitution or simply amend the current one dating back to 1977. “A good number of interviewees highlighted the costs involved in preparing a fresh Katiba Mpya (new constitution), and others said previous drafts could be used as a starting point even though the last one is already eight years old and was prepared two elections ago,” he said.
The task force proposed a further process of national dialogue to agree on key issues in the current constitution that need to be reviewed or changed, citing the Union structure between Tanzania mainland and Zanzibar as a significant example. The President should then appoint a new panel to use the recommendations from the dialogue to draft another constitution, whether new or based on previous drafts, which will eventually be presented to parliament for endorsement. Prof Mukandala did not give any timelines for this potentially lengthy process to be completed.
Speaking after the task force’s presentation, President Suluhu avoided mentioning the constitution issue directly but noted that the recommendations included such a large number of law changes and new task forces that it could take the government some time to get everything organised. She also said the task force’s proposals, while useful as a whole, should not be construed as “directives to the government”.
Prof Mukandala said the National Electoral Commission should not be answerable to any government agency. Instead, he concluded, an “independent” committee led by the Chief Justice should be formed to vet applications for selection of NEC commissioners. All citizens should be eligible to apply but the committee’s recommendations should still be submitted to the president who will have the final say on the NEC’s actual composition, Prof Mukandala’s team proposed.
The taskforce further proposed that all future NEC decisions, including presidential election results, be allowed to be challenged in court. This would mark a significant change, as currently Tanzania’s presidential election results are legally not challengeable in court once the electoral commission declares them.
On political rallies, it said parties across the spectrum should be allowed to resume both public and internal meetings without hassle, and recommended that the laws governing political party activities and police operations should be amended accordingly.
President Hassan gave her backing to this proposal. “As things stand,” she said, “the current laws give the police leeway to intervene as they see fit. But these are laws that can be fixed quickly. Even we in government will receive credit if political rallies are allowed again,” she said.
Nevertheless, in the event the President acted even without amending the law. In early January 2023 she announced at a meeting with political party leaders from across the political spectrum that “permission for political meetings will be granted; our duty as the government is to protect them. Hold your meetings safely, but you have to adhere to the rules and regulations,” she said.
Speaking at the same event about a possible new constitution, the President said she will soon revive the process that had been stalled for eight years in order to write a constitution that will be in line with the current needs of the nation’s development. “Soon we will form a committee that will include all groups in the community,” she said. “The committee will advise us on what to do and how to get a new constitution for the people.”
At the time of writing, the way forward remains unclear. There is clearly more openness to the idea of a new constitution among the current government than was the case under President Magufuli, but the process has thus far only been discussed in unspecific terms, and it will likely face the same challenges that undermined the previous attempt.
Finding acceptable members to form whatever team or committee or taskforce will be one such challenge. Will it be dominated by politicians, already committed to particular ideas and showing little inclination to compromise? Further, picking any of the previous draft versions of the constitution will be interpreted as a victory for one or other group. It will be very challenging to prevent the battle lines that were previously drawn from quickly being re-established. For a process that is intended to produce a document that unites the country, keeping everyone on board with both the process and the outcome will not be easy.