EDITORIAL: Tanzania can protest but retain its court membership

Saturday December 07 2019

The African Court in Arusha, Tanzania. This past week, the government presented a withdrawal notice to the African Union Commission, heralding its withdrawal from the court. PHOTO COURTESY | AFCHPR

By The EastAfrican

In a development that is as puzzling as it is disturbing, it emerged this week that Tanzania has withdrawn from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR); a charter it ratified in March 2010.

The actual notice of withdrawal was quietly served on the Secretary General of the African Union mid-November.

In the withdrawal notice dated November 14, Tanzania’s minister for foreign affairs Prof Palamagamba Kabudi explains that Dar was protesting implementation of the charter before its reservations had been addressed.

This development comes at the peak of a clash between conservative forces and advocates of democracy and a more liberal society in Tanzania. It also marks a dangerous drift away from the values of freedom and human rights on which Tanzania was founded.

Tanzania stands apart from the majority of its African peers, because save for the brief Zanzibar crisis in 1964, it has been peaceful and managed a peaceful transition from a socialist single party system to democratic pluralism without much drama or agitation.

Yet the past four years have seen the country become more insular amid a determined assault on freedom of expression and human rights in general.


The ruling party now enjoys a 99 per cent majority in local government thanks to a boycott by the opposition that opted out of the civic elections in protest against mistreatment and intimidation of its candidates.

The elections have been condemned as “illegitimate” by both the opposition and the international community.

In recent weeks, the government tightened its grip on the media by introducing new regulations that determine who can be employed as a journalist.

This is a follow-on law to another one that bars anybody from disseminating statistics that are not originated by the National Bureau of Statistics.

In the Magufuli administration’s thinking, the government has a monopoly of truth, and any other source of information is illegitimate and calculated to trigger civil unrest in the country.

For the first time in decades, Tanzania is holding journalists in jail whose trials cannot proceed, several months after they were taken into custody.

Coming in in quick succession, the raft of new gags on expression, the continued detention of media and civil rights activists, and the withdrawal from the AfCHPR do actually undermine Dar’s commitment to upholding basic human rights.

Most of the conduct being criminalised today is a natural evolution of what the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere envisaged when he declared a move to the right and retired from the presidency in 1985.

When he liberalised the politics and the economy, Mwalimu believed that a clash of ideas and competition in both business and politics would result in a more peaceful and advanced society.

Far from achieving this vision, the current drift towards authoritarianism is likely to polarise Tanzania more, and create conditions for more civil discontent and agitation. That is a genie better left in its bottle since unleashing it will fundamentally shift philosophical disposition of the Tanzanians.

Dar must also be mindful of the reputational damage of some of its actions and find a way of pedalling away from what is certainly, a disastrous turn of events.