Bullet, whip and ‘stately’ scars of a serious top presidential contender

Tuesday August 11 2020

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu (centre, in spectacles) arrives at Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court in Dar es Salaam on July 30, 2020 to face four charges of sedition, three days after arriving back in the country. He is also a presidential candidate. PHOTO | THE CITIZEN | NMG


Tanzania’s main opposition party Chadema, has nominated its vice-chairman Tundu Lissu as its candidate to face off with President John Magufuli in the October 28 general election.

Lissu hasn’t been around. He only returned home on July 27 from Belgium where he has been receiving treatment and recovering after surviving an assassination attempt on September 7, 2017.

Gunmen rained bullets on Lissu, at his home in Tanzania’s administrative capital Dodoma after he returned from a parliamentary session, shooting him in the stomach and leg. He was flown to a Nairobi hospital where he was treated for weeks, before continuing his healing journey in Europe.

Lissu is a stubborn man, and had tangled with the government many times, and been arrested at least six times in 2017, accused of “insulting” Magufuli.

This backstory explains why Lissu limps heavily. That limp is very East African. In these parts, except in Kenya (and even then only since about 2001), you can’t really be a serious opposition challenger unless you’ve had your bones broken, worn a sling on a fractured arm a couple of times, have handcuff marks on your wrists, been jailed and tortured, inhaled several times more tear gas than the national average, and have a police cordon around your home to prevent you coming and going as you please.

For the more extreme cases, just ask Uganda’s long-time rival to President Yoweri Museveni, Dr Kizza Besigye, and more recently hip-hop star turned legislator Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine). In South Sudan, recently returned first vice president Riek Machar, survived narrowly in December 2013 when he fell out with President Salva Kiir, escaping through a narrow opening and fleeing to the forest, where he led a war, then went to South Africa where they connived with Juba and kept him under house arrest.


East Africa is a glittering place — new high-rise buildings, fancy cars, swanky airports, innovation hubs, colourful music and art exhibitions, new highways and railways — but its competitive politics is still in the cave, with most of the leaders all but walking around with stone-studded clubs right of out of the Flintstones animated TV series.

The impact of all these guns, rungus, machetes, manacles, and electric wires, is evident in stark ways in our politics. Unlike in parts of West and southern Africa, in East Africa the dapper classic-quoting, bow-tie wearing, opposition politician has become extinct. The Big Man’s enforcers can make you eat that bow-tie or strangle you with a regular tie even if it has the national flag on it. These days they do Chadema’s khaki and African shirts and dresses.

The substantial opposition candidates who run closely against the incumbent are the ones who can show bullet, whip, and other scars caused by blunt instruments. They will usually have spent some nights on a cold prison floor, at the minimum. They are likely to have a story or two about a heroic escape from government goons, and several near-death experiences. In this digital edge, they will likely have trended with a #Free hashtag.

In East Africa, most serious opposition rivals to incumbents at elections are no longer just politicians. They’ve been turned into martyrs. And presidential elections are a blood sport.