Tanzanian politics: Be very wary about what to believe

Sunday March 15 2020

Chadema party MPs Halima Mdee, Ester Matiko and Ester Bulaya attend a press conference after being released from Segerea prison in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on March 12. Chadema has been hit by several defections by leading members to NCCR-Mageuzi, which appears to be making a comeback. PHOTO | AFP


This past week, the Tanzanian political scene has been dominated by a judgment that was delivered by a resident magistrate’s court in Dar es Salaam finding principal leaders of the main opposition party, Chadema, guilty of sedition and unlawful and riotous demonstration a couple of years ago.

Those found guilty include party chairman Freeman Mbowe and former secretary-general Vincent Mashinji, as well as a number of members of Parliament.

Sentencing them on Tuesday, Kisutu resident magistrate Thomas Simba found the accused guilty as charged, and sentenced them to a jail term of five months or a fine totalling the equivalent of $160,000.

Immediately after the sentencing, the whole country was abuzz with the landmark sentence, the ‘commentariat’ trying to figure out what the judgment meant and what it augured for the opposition, especially in this election year.

The first thing that came up was that the magistrate had exercised judicial restraint by making the sentence just short of six months, which would have disqualified a prospective candidate for a political post — most of the accused are candidates next October — and also by offering the option of a fine. Very few observers had expected Simba to acquit the accused.

The second was that Chadema decided to make this a “People Power” issue, appealing to the public to take up the case and contribute toward the payment of the fines, which appeal appears to have worked, as many social media platforms were populated by activists goading each other to crowdfund, and arguing about the best, most secure way to go about it without the state sabotaging the effort.


The third was the Judas-Iscariot payout, as someone called it on social media, when Mashinji, who had been Chadema Secretary-General during the demonstration, and so was effectively the event organiser, was bankrolled by the ruling CCM, which paid his fine, the reason being that he had abandoned Chadema and joined CCM after he had lost his bid for re-election.

Fourth was when a statement out of Ikulu (State House) saying President John Magufuli had decided to pay 90 per cent of the fine slapped on a Chadema member of Parliament, a preacher from the southern region of Iringa. Whereas the largesse shown in respect of Mashinji was explicable, on account of his recent reconversion, it was rumoured that the president and the Iringa priest share matrimonial links involving nephews and nieces.

In the byzantine world that has become Tanzanian politics, one has to be very wary about what to believe.

Serious journalism has been stifled out of existence, courtesy of an information directorate that for too long went around waving a hammer and all it could see were nails.

Those who still persist in what passes for journalism have become self-censoring cowards creating news stories as explosive devices.

Thus, it is all but impossible for a serious news editor to call anyone in authority to inquire whether it was okay for the CCM machinery to pay Mashinji’s fine when the party has always stated that these people staging demonstrations are ‘’troublemakers’’ bent on destabilising the country, or for the president to pay the fine for the Iringa cleric, who, according to the magistrate, is guilty of participating in illegal activities.

The question I am asking here is, do the president and his party condone the ‘illegal’ activities of some people in Chadema though they are against those same activities on the part of some other members of the same party, or what? Does that not smack of double standards?

But, more than anything else contained in this piece, what did the magistrate basically adjudicate on in his judgment of the Chadema demonstrators? Suggest there is a point that needs clarification as to the justice our Judiciary purports to dispense.

Every political party registered in accordance with our constitutional dispensation has the right to organise meetings, rallies and demonstrations according to laid down rules.

This has meant that parties inform the police to get protection and security, but that cannot mean that it is up to the police to say who can and who cannot organise these activities, citing this or that excuse.

Now the police are acting as sole arbiters, though it is not clear whence they derive those powers.

I do not know what magistrate Thomas Simba said about that, but what is the recourse of those who the police have practically banned from organising politics?

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]