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Defending democracy in Tanzania

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2006 Tutu Fellow Aidan Eyakuze is warning Tanzanianians that the loss of open discourse in the country could lead to a breakdown of the country's ability to be fully democratic. Eyakuze, who heads the East African civic organisation Twaweza, begins his piece by ticking off positive campaign promises President John Magafuli kept on rolling back corruption in the country. He goes on to say in his piece in Civicus that the acclaim President Magafuli obtained early in his term when his approval rating soared to 96% obscures other decisions that are troubling.

Three months into his President Magafuli's rule, live radio and TV broadcasts were stopped. Magafuli's government has also banned political rallies and meetings.

The claim made by Magafuli's administration is that politics is a 'distraction' for the people preventing progress. Since then, laws already on the books restricting the media have been strengthened and new laws introduced. Curbs on political expression on social media have been enacted under the guise of fighting cybercrime. Bloggers must register and pay a $900USD license fee they can lose for being critical. Eyakuze argues that "Democracy, which had never taken firm roots in Tanzania, is more vulnerable now than at any time in the last 25 years."

President Magafuli's administration is basing these changes on claims made by strongmen since time immemorial: that corruption, democracy and human rights can be tackled most effectively by centralised power, and that human rights are a luxury that Tanzania can only afford when it has already developed. Tanzanians disagree. Research shows that 92% of citizens want parliamentary sessions to be broadcast live. 86% believe transparency reduces the liklihood of corruption.

Freedom of expression is also cherished.  More than 80% of Tanzanians say that having the freedom to criticise leaders provides a mechanism against poor leadership judgement.

The changes have already had a chilling effect.  Since 2107, research reveals that a majority - 60% - don’t feel free to be critical of the President. In July, Eyakuze had his passport confiscated. It followed a poll in which Twaweza, doing research, published findings that the Commission of Science and Technology said had not been 'authorised'.  While the timing may have been coincidental, seen together, the implications are clear and point to a government seeking to control tightly only narratives it has authorised.

Eyakuze's article is not simply critical.  He suggests three ideas in which it is possible to translate popular support for democracy into effective action to protect democratic rights and the rule of law:

  • Find institutions that have the strength to stand up in defence of democracy, and work with them. He spells out several ways in which this can be done.
  • Find creative ways to shape the public narrative about governance. This includes encouraging action in defence of democracy as being a patriotic action.
  • Find creative ways to bring citizens’ views, experiences and concerns to the attention of national leaders and policy-makers. Functionally, this means popping the bubble around politicians with information they need to understand citizens' daily realities and opinions.

The entire article by Aidan Eyakuze can be read at Civicus.

 

 

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Thursday, 21 March 2019

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