President John Pombe Magufuli may have been given an opportunity for reflection by two major constituencies that have come out to warn him against increased totalitarianism in the governance structures and systems of his country.
At the beginning of Lent — the Christian season of penance — the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) issued a pastoral letter in Dar es Salaam lamenting the deteriorating governance situation in Tanzania, including the restrictions imposed on opposition parties, the repression of mass media and suppression of the freedom of expression. It was signed by all the 36 bishops making up the TEC.
The Catholic bishops’ statement warned that the deteriorating situation was causing increased tension that could lead to mistrust among citizens and eventually lead to a breakdown of peace and national solidarity.
Before the ink was dry on the Episcopal message, more than 100 civil society organisations issued a statement condemning what they called “unprecedented” cases of human rights violations in Tanzania’s history, including “attacks, torture and forced disappearances of rights activists, journalists and even ordinary citizens.”
They highlighted the shooting incident in September last year in which a vocal critic of the president, Tundu Lissu, was attacked in a hail of bullets in broad daylight in an official compound in Dodoma, and has since been treated and recovering from serious injuries in Nairobi and Brussels.
Lissu, who is a senior opposition legislator and president of Tanzania’s Bar association, had relentlessly faulted President Magufuli on many issues, calling him a “petty dictator,” and someone who had been responsible as minister for some of the problems he was now trying to blame on others.
Lissu’s party, Chadema, has laid the blame for his attempted assassination on Magufuli’s government.
They also talked of the unexplained disappearance of a journalist, Azory Gwanda, who was taken away in November by “unknown people” after having reported on murders of local officials and has never been seen since. They also mentioned the killing of a young female student in a police shooting incident recently. The police were trying to disperse a Chadema march when they fired live bullets.
Government officials have been making hardly intelligible statements about these incidents, and there seems to be no co-ordinated position among the different organs of state on the statements made by the pastoral letter or the civil society statement.
I find it disturbing, because some of the actions complained against are undertaken by people who may think that intimidation and brutal repression are the preferred mode of governance of the current regime.
Hardly 48 hours after the release of the civil society statement, a Chadema district councillor in Kilombero, Godfrey Lwema, was hacked to death outside his house by “unknown people.”
The chief executive of the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), Dr Hellen Kiijo-Bisimba, who co-ordinated the civil society for the statement mentioned above, says Lwema had been an LHRC activist at local level and had reportedly refused inducements to defect from Chadema to CCM. Kiijo-Bisimba suspects Lwema was killed because he spurned these machinations.
Tanzania is now a dangerous place for anyone who does not dance to the tune of a coterie of subaltern officers who think they are above the law, common decency and common sense, and that they can get away with murder.
Let us hope Magufuli does not condone these criminal acts.
And let us hope that those who he appointed to advise him, especially those who know something about the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the Judiciary, the sanctity of parliament, press freedom and freedom of expression, will do just that: Advise him instead of being his cheer leaders.
Magufuli can still redeem his administration by listening to the voice of the Catholic bishops and the voice of civil society. Vox populi vox Dei, we have always said. The voice of the people is the voice of God. Now, here, we have the two conjoined over the same issue.
The descent into chaos and ungovernableness must be arrested now. It must start with dialogue.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]