The gears are shifting steadily, and the election juggernaut is slowly getting on to the highway headed for polling day on October 28. The air of excitement and the frantic goings-on may be just the reaction of a population unused to political activity and suddenly discovering they can actually engage in open politics.
There is, therefore that novelty in the air, almost like all of a sudden you can go about eating the forbidden fruit with the gardener benignly looking on. Since John Pombe Magufuli ascended to the presidency five years ago, politics has been all but placed on hold, with so many strictures placed on would-be campaigners that many felt they had better fish to fry, and those who persisted quickly got into hot soup.
Many opposition politicians were all too frequently arrested, detained without trial, denied bail even where bail should have been available, their businesses disrupted and some of them bribed, cajoled or intimidated into (re) joining the ruling party.
But probably the greatest act of intimidation committed against the opposition happened three years ago when a senior member of parliament was attacked in broad daylight within parliamentary premises, and left for dead, with 16 slugs lodged in his body. Insult soon joined injury when the authorities stripped him of his membership of parliament for absenteeism — of all things — while he was in Belgium undergoing, literally, bodily reconstruction.
This is the man who landed in Dar es Salaam to a tumultuous reception by an adoring crowd at the end of July. Phoenix-like, Tundu Antipas Lissu, had risen from the ashes and come to haunt Magufuli, who he had dubbed a ‘petty dictator’ on many occasions before he was showered with bullets while attending a parliamentary session in Dodoma.
To make it better — for Tundu, that is — Chadema overwhelmingly voted to make him its presidential candidate, pitting him directly against Magufuli, with some understanding that a couple of other opposition outfits will endorse him.
His candidacy will however not be an easy thing to ensure, because the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties, which has assumed incomprehensible imperial powers under a new, contested law, could actually employ subterfuge to nullify his candidacy, thus throwing the whole process into chaos.
If, however, Lissu is allowed to stand, then Magufuli will have found a worthy foe, an intrepid campaigner who never minces his words and whose rhetorical logic takes very few prisoners indeed. He does not need to remind anyone that he is the target of the most dramatically enacted crime in the political history of the country, and people are bound to listen.
On the Zanzibar side, Tundu will be flanked by veteran opposition kingpin, Seif Sharif Hamad, the ACT-Wazalendo presidential candidate, whose purge from his erstwhile party, CUF — apparently aided by the authorities — and decamping to ACT-Wazalendo, has created a major political earthquake, and catapulted its founder Zitto Zuberi Kabwe to the forefront of Tanzania’s politics.
‘Maalim’ will, on the face of it, enjoy the support of Chadema’s Tundu as Seif seeks the presidency in Zanzibar, just as Tundu will expect ACT-Wazalendo to scratch his back in return in his Union presidential bid. It is probable that ACT will eschew fighting for the Union presidency, and Chadema will easily let pass the Zanzibar presidential tussle.
This said, there is a caution to always bear in mind, that politicians will be politicians, sometimes in spite of themselves, and one week could be a very long period.
Over the past three months alone we have been treated to flip-flops, smoke screens and banana skins. Former foreign minister under president Jakaya Kikwete, Bernard Membe, just recently quit CCM to join ACT, and seeks the presidency under that party’s ticket. Will he desist in favour of Chadema’s Tundu (if the two parties thrash out a modus) and what would there be for him in all that?
Probably the most poignant question many concerned observers have on their mind is whether we can hope at all for a reasonably free, reasonably fair and reasonably credible election in the Union and in Zanzibar?
Past experiences have left yawning gaps, and old grievances persist, chief among them being the necessity of having an independent electoral commission, and the more strategic quest for the promulgation of a new constitution mobilising the political and intellectual energies of the country. That will never die out, though we, in our humble mortal coils, are called upon to play our bit and disappear.