New dawn for political vibrancy but what about ills of the past?

Saturday January 28 2023
Tanzania's opposition leader Tundu Lissu

Tanzania's opposition leader Tundu Lissu is received by supporters on January 25, 2023 as he returns from exile in Belgium. PHOTO | AFP


Tundu Antipas Lissu—you surely remember him? — is back again. In case you’ve forgotten his name, let me bring you up to speed: This is the man who, having been shot 16 times in 2017 and survived, came back in 2020 to stand as presidential candidate against the man he had all along accused of having ordered his assassination, John Pombe Magufuli, then incumbent president and running for re-election on behalf of the ruling CCM party.

In one Nairobi newspaper cartoon, Lissu was depicted as the proverbial cat with nine lives.

He had spent three years in Belgium undergoing treatment and reconstruction and, though with a bad limp from those bullets, had a spring in his stride and a resolve in his face suggesting he was spoiling for the political fight of his life.

After the elections in 2020, he fled the country, citing threats against his life and once again found himself in Belgium. A couple of other opposition figures also sought asylum abroad. Before his flight, Lissu had stayed hidden in a Western embassy in Dar es Saalam, from where he managed to send out messages concerning his plight.

Incredible tale

It is an incredible tale, one usually found in political thrillers written by master storytellers of the ilk of Wilbur Smith and Frederick Forsyth, but it happened in our lifetime, and most of what took place went down in broad daylight. The shooting of Lissu in 2017 happened at lunchtime, in the capital, in government premises supposedly guarded and covered by CCTV cameras.


But for all intents and purposes for the authorities, this incident did not take place. There is not a single soul who has come forward to bear witness to it; there are no security camera footages; there is no interest expressed by the authorities as to what happened on that terrifying afternoon when a pre-eminent member of the political class was so brutally attacked and left for dead.

It is against that nonchalance that Lissu has continuously pitted himself, almost in the sense of someone who has looked death in the face and refused to flinch, setting his mind firmly on what he resolved to achieve before he was shot, that is challenge the status quo and do anything in his power to dislodge the ruling party, the mighty CCM.

New political vibrancy

Now that Lissu is back, it is safe to assume that we shall soon witness a new political vibrancy that had been missing in the country since Magufuli did what he did to kill the opposition. This new dispensation, which has made it easy for Lissu to come back, is thanks to the thawing of relations between CCM and the opposition Chadema, brokered principally between President Samia Suluhu Hassan and Chadema’s Freeman Mbowe. It is to these two that all kudos is due, for their sense of forbearance.

The first weekend of political rallies has played out, and it has gone peacefully, a far cry from the Magufuli-era belief that politics sowed chaos.   

However, the détente that seems to have taken hold in the country between these bitter rivals poses a major problema which we have to face up to if we want to understand what is really happening.  There can be really little doubt that Samia is determined to put her country on a new trajectory of social peace predicated on the respect for basic rights, which include the unfettered participation of citizens in political processes.

But this is exactly what her predecessor, John Magufuli, had stubbornly set out to eradicate and for which his regime had beaten up people, imprisoned others and persecuted hundreds of people for the simple reason that they had dared to challenge his diktat.

Is it real?

It is legitimate to wonder whether this thawing of relations can be real when we have had no accounting for what happened in those six or so years in which political and civic democratic spaces were seriously constricted, so much so that we have on record cases of disappearances of persons that have remained unaccounted for to this day.

Is it possible to carry on as if nothing of note happened all this while and that all is well? I think not. The desire to let bygones be bygones cannot extend to areas like unexplained deaths of citizens or any other egregious examples of state brutality against its citizens.

With the slow reopening of the political spaces, highlighted by the arrival of Lissu, who drove straight from the airport to his first mass rally last Sunday, we expect to experience a new rise in the political temperature. Will the same institutions which muddied the 2020 elections be trusted to run the coming polls, first next year — the civic polls are slated for 2024 — and then in 2025?

There are numerous calls for the removal of these officials, who are known by name, before anything resembling normalcy can be expected. How much is Samia willing to reform and remove those who have distinguished themselves by their irrational and brutal behaviour in the past, including her discredited electoral commission and the top brass of the police force, all accomplices in the crimes of the past?

This we shall see sooner rather than later.