He talks exclusively to The Africa Report about how he says the government manipulated the election, his harrowing flight from Tanzania and the future of the opposition under the repressive rule of Tanzania’s former single party.
The Africa Report: Against many people’s advice, it really did put you at risk of life and limb given the circumstances, you went back, you then stood for the presidency but we saw a really disruptive campaign, lots of restrictions on your ability to campaign. Can you explain really, since you returned to Tanzania in July, what happened as you were getting ready for the presidential campaign? What sort of obstacles you faced as you tried to register and run a campaign against the incumbent John Magufuli?
Tundu Lissu: I think before talking about the obstacles that I faced, I must first give a bit of a background to the return. As you may know, I had been out of Tanzania for about three years trying to recover from the bloody assassination attempt against me on 7 September 2017. I was taken out of the country after the shooting, but I left behind numerous criminal cases that I was facing.
Prior to the shooting, I had been arrested and charged in court with this or that sedition offence or other free-speech offences eight times. So I had a lots of cases in court, and I left these – of course in the circumstances I left, I did not have time to say goodbye to anyone, to the court and whatever.
So in the course of my treatment, my hospitalisation during these three years I did not turn up in court, and therefore there were all sorts of threats that I had skipped court that in the meantime I was stripped of my parliamentary seat, so there were threats that should I go back Tanzania, I would be arrested. That was the general climate.
Of course I feared the worst, I did not fear arrests as much as I feared someone trying to have a go at me again after the unsuccessful assassination attempt on 7 September 2017.
So I go back in the midst of all this fear, in the midst of all this worry that I would be arrested or worse, but I went anyway. The one thing that took me by surprise and which was very good was my reception on arrival in Dar Es Salaam. We were in the position where we had been prohibited from carrying out any public political activity for five years since President Magufuli came to office in 2015, and therefore I did not expect any public welcome really, but contrary to my expectations, I was received by literally tens of thousands of people in the city of Dar Es Salaam and we had an unauthorised demonstration if you will, all the way from the airport to the party’s headquarters.
And in the days following my arrival I went to the country, I went to my constituency. I had been an MP after the 2015 general elections. So I went to my constituency, I went to my home village to see my folks, to pray at my ancestors’ resting place. And everywhere I went during that first month, I was received by tens of thousands of very happy, very jubilant, very optimistic Tanzanians. And that went on until the nomination for the presidency.
In the meantime, I was nominated by my party to be the party’s standard bearer for the presidency. And after the nomination then I went to the country to seek sponsors. The law requires you to have a certain number of registered voters as sponsors. And I went across the country, and it was very good.
I have never seen the Tanzanian people that happy, I have never seen the Tanzanian people that optimistic about their prospects. But immediately after the campaign, things started going south.
So in the course of the campaign, you have to bear in mind that after five years of repression, President Magufuli and his party were not really expecting any opposition, it was supposed to be a coronation rather than an election.
And suddenly here I was literally electrifying the campaign, going from thousands of people attending my meetings to tens of thousands. It was nice. And then they started putting obstacles in my path, for instance I was suspended for one week without – I was told I violated the campaign ethics regulations – but I was never charged, I never saw a charge sheet.
That was this statement about rigging? What was their claim?
Their claim was that Magufuli had called a meeting of all the returning officers, these are the supervisors in constituencies all over the country, with the intention of rigging, basically. So I will slapped with a seven-days ban. I never was called for a hearing, I never was served with the charge sheet as it were.
The article continues below
Get your free PDF: COVID-19. How Africa can navigate the pandemic
Leaders of all stripes are scrambling to contain the fallout.
Complete the form and download, for free, The Africa Report’s COVID-19 How Africa can navigate the pandemic. Get your free PDF by completing the following form
On that particular issue, did you have very clear evidence about this meeting between Magufuli and the returning officers? Did anyone else come out with these claims?
I was the one who came up with those claims and I was given the information by people from very close to Magufuli himself, people whose veracity I had absolutely no reason to doubt. And as it turned out on the election day actually I was 100% correct, but that is going too fast.
But the point is I was never called to a hearing, I was not served with the charge sheet, I wasn’t called to defend myself, I did not defend myself yet I was slapped with this seven-days ban, which I had to make a decision: Do I defy it and escalate while we have a campaign or just do something else?
And I decided to do something else, I decided to carry out internal party functions. I’m also the vice-chairman of the party. And you will have heard that going to an internal party meeting, I was stopped on the highway by anti-riot police, basically they prevented me from continuing with my journey, they prevented me from going where I wanted to go, it wasn’t a campaign meeting, but there you were.
And that morphed into a prohibition. We had hired a helicopter and we were prevented from flying because the authorities deemed that my helicopter pilot, a South African pilot was too old at 55 years of age, he was too old to be flying a presidential candidate around, 55 years. 55 years, suddenly they were very concerned for my health and welfare.
Never mind, we decided to take to the road, and the road became even better for us and they were very concerned again. So we were tear-gassed in a number of places, tear-gassed, we were prevented from holding meetings in certain places, they kept escalating, they kept putting obstacles in my path.
We were eventually allowed to fly again, we hired another helicopter, this time flown by a much younger Kenyan pilot, who was around 53-54 thereabouts, and this time we were required to seek for landing permit every day of the campaign. If you have a helicopter you should be able to land anywhere, but we were told by the Civil Aviation Authority that we must apply for and have a landing permit every day. And therefore it was delays and delays and delays.
Some areas they just said were weren’t allowed to fly into in the southern regions of Tanzania because we were told there’s a cyclone coming, Mr. Lissu you’ll be putting your life in danger. These people were very concerned about my well-being, all of a sudden.
But we somehow managed to finish the campaign, generally on the whole it was a very good campaign, it was in spite of all of these obstacles we had a massive, massive campaign. I probably addressed millions of Tanzanians during those two months. I addressed more meetings than Magufuli and his running mate combined actually, we were literally everywhere, on a shamefully low budget.
So we managed to finish the campaign and then come election day, now just a week before the election day, we had to make sure our polling agents countrywide were sworn in, in order to be able to access the polling stations. And that is when we realised that we were in for a very rough surprise. It was very difficult to get our polling agents sworn in, the returning officers and all the election supervisors, all the way down placed obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to our polling agents, but we managed to squeak them through. We had 80,000 polling stations across the country. We managed to get all polling stations covered with our polling agents, after all these difficulties.
Is that one agent per station or did you have some reserves?
One agent per station. So we had 80,000 polling agents countrywide, even though dozens of our candidates had been disqualified on the nomination day. So we did not have 35 parliamentary candidates because they were disqualified. We did not have nearly 700 local councillor candidates because they were disqualified. But we were still were still able to place polling agents literally in every polling station.
Now on election day, that is when we realised what Magufuli had been planning with his returning officers and his military all along. Because on that day, literally all over the country, the polling stations were taken over by the military, by the security forces, anti-riot police, the intelligence service. And of our 80,000 polling agents, 57,900 polling agents were completely prevented from getting into polling stations.
Another 12,000 were allowed in after considerable delays, and they were not allowed to stay in the polling stations until the close of the business at those polling stations. So counting everybody, we had about 10,000 polling agents out of a possible 80,000, and those 10,000 who were present at polling stations, they did not get their returns for their polling stations because they were not given any.
Right, so were they present for the counts?
They were present for the counts, some were at the counter till the very end, but even them they did not get the returns.
What are the procedures in Tanzania? After the count, is the count announced publicly — the results of the counts, in those polling stations where your agents were able to get in, were they able to witness the counts and witness the results being called. And are those results posted so others – journalists and election observers and so on – can witness it. Was there any transparency and accountability at all in the other?
Not at all.
So there were no independent people present at the counts? No journalists?
Absolutely no one, no one other than – with regard to those 10,000 who were available, they were not given the results forms, the law says they should be given them, these results forms were not posted publicly so that the members of the public could see the results for themselves, and the law requires them to be posted publicly.
In fact what our agents told us was that even in their polling stations, police officers, riot police and security agents, these intelligence personnel same with their own results forms, and even those were not posted publicly. So as we speak today, the national electoral commission has not been able to post publicly the results of the election countrywide.
Right, that is constituency by constituency?
Constituency by constituency, polling station by polling station, they have not been able to do so, for the simple reason that the results that they announced do not make sense to any sane person. I will just give you a sampler of what we have for instance. In one constituency in Dar Es Salaam, the presidential votes cast for all the presidential candidates exceed the parliamentary and councillor votes by more than 127,000 votes.
Now every voter is given three ballots: for the presidency, for the parliamentary candidate and for the local council candidate. Therefore in a proper election there shouldn’t be a discrepancy at all, but in this particular station the difference between the presidential tally and all others is 127,000 votes, and the story is similar in dozens of constituencies.
So with this kinds of results and everyone knows, the story is now fairly public and therefore the electoral commission has not been able to place these results because they will prove that this was not an election at all. They had their numbers, and we had been told they already had their numbers, they had their results for the constituencies for the presidency, for council seats, they had the actual numbers for each polling station basically.
And someone told us a few days ago that some students from the university of Dodoma in central Tanzania, Dodoma is our legislative capital were are taken out – these are CCM members, they were taken a week or so before the election, they were taken to a place where there was some kind of a big storage facility, where they marked over 8 million ballots for Magufuli. And then these were put into lorries for distribution across the country, and we’re hearing all sorts of stories.
Have you got any attestation of those claims? Have you got signed statements, witness statements and the like?
No we have not, not a single one because everyone who was involved, all these are public servants and people fear losing their jobs.
Right, so the results come out and Magufuli claims this landslide win. And then you condemn it, and Chadema condemns it. At what stage do you feel that you have to flee the country then? What triggers your flight from Tanzania?
The results are announced on Friday, 30th, and that same day the police…
That’s what? Two days after the election at this point?
That is two days after the election, very, very rapid. Immediately, that same day after the announcement of the results, the security that I had been provided with, the police officer who had been guarding me all during the campaign period was immediately withdrawn. And the very next day I started receiving death threats. I was called by somewhat who did not really identify himself, but his message was Mr. Lissu, the order is out, we are coming after you and the order is…His exact words were “The order is to deal with you once and for all.” And that was followed by another phone call a few hours later pretty much to the same effect.
Were you able to track these calls? No numbers?
No, no numbers.
And of course given that there was an attempt on your life four years ago, you took these calls pretty seriously? Were you the only opposition candidate to receive such threats as far as you know?
As far as I know I was the only one. I was the only presidential candidate of any consequence.
Why do you think they timed it like this then? Because you did come back to the country, people advised you not to. You fought the election. It seems to have been badly rigged. Why did they need to do that now? What did they fear that you would do by being in the country?
If I am in the country, then the possibility of rallying the opposition and rallying the nation against these fraudulent election was very real. If I am in the country, I’m going to simply not keep quiet because I have never been the kind of a person who would keep quiet with these kinds of things. Therefore, my presence in the country was dangerous to the regime.
Right, and there were some protest rallies, you did try to organise some protest rallies in Dar.
I personally called for mass protests countrywide, they did not materialise to any meaningful extent with the exception of Zanzibar, which were put down so brutally, with so many people killed.
How many people were killed in Zanzibar?
In Zanzibar, the figure that we have is 22 people were murdered, literally shot dead by the security forces. On the mainland the figures that we have were eight people killed.
And where were those people killed on the mainland?
On the mainland, in the north-west in Tarime District, four. Four people killed in Tarime and 4 killed on the Zambian border town of Tunduma.
And what was the timing of this? Was this just after the results came out?
This was on the election day and after. There was so much violence, as I said the polling stations were literally taken over by the military, by anti-riot police, by vigilante groups of the ruling party who were beating people up and in the course of that violence, many people were killed.
So you got this threat, the results have come out, there have been protests, and people have been killed. So what happens next?
And hundreds arrested, beaten up, tortured in police stations, in these army camps. Then what happened after I received those death threats and some were actually sent to my wife in these WhatsApp chat groups. She received the message from a particular group which said that the boss has ordered that the intelligence apparatus deal with Mr. Lissu and they should not make a mistake this time, the message read that way.
That they are not to make a mistake this time, that they had made a mistake shooting me 16 times and not killing me in 2017. Anyway, so I took these threats very, very seriously. For someone who has gone through what I went through, it would have been strange if I ignored these threats. So I decided to run for dear life.
On that Saturday, I left home at night. I spent a night with friends and remained until Monday morning, actually. And on Monday morning, it became very clear that actually they were closing in on me.
So as not to put my friends in danger, I decided to flee to the German embassy. And the German embassy because I had met the ambassador with a number of other European ambassadors in the course of the campaign they had called a meeting with me and so I had met with them at the German ambassador’s residence.
So the easiest number that I could get at that point, with all these things was the German ambassador’s phone. And I sent her a message, I sent a message to her deputy that I was on the run and I was coming to the embassy.
So I went to the embassy. They did not allow me in soon enough. They took some time. Apparently they were debating with other diplomatic missions that they shared the building with, the British, the Dutch and the European Union delegation. And while they were deliberating on what to do, the security forces closed in on me. So I was arrested outside the German embassy, and I was taken to the central police station in Dar Es Salaam for questioning,
What were the charges? Why did they arrest you?
They told me verbally that I was trying to overthrow the government. But fortunately for me at the time when they were just taking me away, German diplomats arrived on the scene. And they drove with us to the police station, and they insisted on remaining at the police station until the questioning was over.
And that I think is what probably saved my life or independence or liberty. Because the police with these diplomats waiting outside, the police were just saw – you could see they were a disgruntled lot.
So they asked me a few questions about my plot to overthrow the government and I told them that is rubbish of course, governments are not overthrown by people calling for mass protests in a press conference. So after a short while they released me, but because of these lingering threats on my life, we decided it was safer to take refuge at the German ambassador’s residence, while the diplomats negotiated for my exit from Tanzania.
Therefore I stayed at the German ambassador’s residence for eight days and the diplomats, the German, Belgian, EU and American diplomats were able to secure a safe passage for me and I left the country on 10 November.
So since then we’ve seen this report by Michelle Bachele and the UN Human Rights Commission, which has pretty much condemned the violence around the elections and the restrictions on campaigning and so on, and the attacks on you personally. What has happened since that report was published? Has the African Union done anything about it? Has the East African community done anything about it, has the Tanzanian government responded in any way?
The East African Community had an observer mission for the election, as did the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), as well as the Africa Union (AU). All three had observer teams for the election. I did not get to meet with the East Africa Community observer mission or the SADC one, but I was privileged to meet President Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, who was leading the Africa Union (AU) observer mission. I met them on three different occasions, once before the election and twice after the election.
And in my two meetings after the election, the AU observers informed me and my colleagues that they had witnessed terrible things in the polling stations that they visited. They in one instance, for instance, in one case they went to a polling station before it opened and the ballot boxes were already overflowing with ballots.
So you’re heading for the airport and you’ve made that decision to leave the country. You’ve got these threats. So then how was this taken in Tanzania? How did your party react and how the people as a whole react?
Relief, huge, huge relief on the part of my party colleagues, as well as many people I spoke to who had been sending messages. And you look at the social media chat groups, there was a huge sense of relief that he’s out and therefore he’s safe, a huge relief.
So you mentioned you met with Goodluck Jonathan who led the AU mission. You didn’t meet with the Southern Africa…
The EAC and the SADC observer missions, I didn’t meet with them.
Is that because they just refused to meet you? What happened?
I think at the time they came into the country – you have to bear in mind that the Magufuli regime had prohibited any international or regional observer missions. They had also severely restricted internal monitors. So the international observer groups basically had to scramble to send missions into the country in the midst of the campaign. They did not arrive in the country prior to the start of the campaign. They came into the country in the midst of the campaign. And I did not meet these two missions, I think most probably because our paths simply did not cross.
I met the AU observer mission on the last day of the campaign actually, in the evening after I had closed my last campaign meeting on 27 October. But also they had sought me out – it is to their credit that they took steps to look for me, I was out in the country campaigning. But they said, they made it very clear that they would have wanted to meet me before the election and we were only able to meet on the last day of the campaign. The two other missions did not look for me at all.
Did the AU publish any public report on the elections and their findings?
Not to my knowledge, to this day as far as I know, the AU observer mission has not issued a report. Not even an initial preliminary report, which is highly unusual. I find that a bit surprising because…
What about the other observer missions, the EAC and the SADC, have they been put out reports?
The EAC mission issued a report the day after the election and they basically said the election was free and fair and there was no problem. The SADC observer mission issued a report a few days later which pretty much said the same thing, the elections were fine and no problem.
The AU mission, which was very critical when I met them on the two occasions after the election, they told me this a long litany of irregularities that they witnessed, which were consistent with what we were hearing from across the country. They have not issued a report up to this moment.
So what recourse do you have now then? Has Chadema itself produced a report on what happened during the election?
We were able to compile a preliminary report within that first week. We compiled a report, it’s almost 100 pages long, and it’s a very long report which details the widespread violations of the law which took place on a constituency by constituency basis. And we used that as a basis for our call for mass protests.
Because we had created a system under which we were going to receive the results and we didn’t get any results. Instead ,we got all these reports of widespread rigging and violence that was visited upon the country on election day and the days after. So we have a preliminary report.
As you can imagine with a country as vast as Tanzania, with over 60 million people, 80,000 polling stations, getting a comprehensive report is going to take time. But we have a fairly detailed preliminary report which as I said which forms the basis for our position on the elections generally.
So apart from the UN report, which was about human rights more than the election itself, have there been any other public reports critical of how the elections will run apart from your own?
The United States embassy issued a very strong report; the British High Commission did the same. The European Union delegation issued a very tepid report. We were later told that with the decision making of the EU with all 27 member States having to agree, certain member states which have been doing business with the regime were not too keen on antagonising their business partners.
So the EU delegation issued a very tepid report, but the Americans, the British High Commission, their reports were very, very critical. And they did not only deal with the violence and the human rights abuses, they also touched on these irregularities, basically the military taking over the electoral commission, providing a cover for a military takeover of the electoral exercise.
A month after the elections now, where is this going? Do you think there’s any body, the AU, the UN that will put any constraint on Magufuli’s second term?
Frankly, I don’t see that happening in the immediate future. The AU is not in the habit of offending its member states, particularly those member states which are much tougher than Gambia. You know they were very strong on little Gambia, but a country the size of Tanzania, I cannot see the AU pressing too hard.
And that perhaps explains why we don’t have an AU observer mission’s report to this day. Because the AU chairman President Cyril Ramaphosa was amongst the very first African leaders to rush to Magufuli with a congratulatory message.
So it means that Ramaphosa has not been listening to his own people on the ground?
I don’t think he even had time to even ask what they had seen.
Have you had any communications with Ramaphosa’s office?
The last time I had communication with his office was in the run up to my return to Tanzania in July. Since the election, I have not had the time to communicate.
Will you be trying to do that? Because it seems as chairman of the African Union, his voice is going to be very important to this.
I will be communicating with President Cyril Ramaphosa very soon.
In your absence, where is the challenge going to come from? Because as you say, Chadema couldn’t organise demonstrations because the people faced armed opposition from the troops and security forces. Where’s is the opposition going to come from now?
Well, the opposition inside the country has not been broken. We may have been kicked out of parliament and out of the local government councils across the country, but we were kicked out not because we lost the election, we were kicked out of the election itself.
So the opposition inside the country […] We’re completely unbroken – bruised and battered, yes – but unbroken, completely unbroken.
So where did the election leave you in terms of parliamentary seats?
One single seat, out of 36 that we had in 2015, we were given only one. Of course, Tanzania’s parliament is not constituted by constituency MPs alone, there are also special seats reserved for women, and those come from parties that get more than 5% of the total parliamentary vote.
We got about 18-19%, which we are told, entitles us to 19 special-seat representatives. Now we have said as a party, that given the travesty of democracy that happened on 28 October, given the fact that we really didn’t have an election, we will not take any of the seats that have been allocated to us because doing would be to confer a veneer of legitimacy to an exercise that the entire country knows was an illegitimate exercise.
So we are not going to legitimise President Magufuli’s dictatorship by conferring it with a democratic sheen. So we have said we will not take anything, we will organise outside parliament, and outside the councils, our organisation even after five years of terrible repression, we have built a grassroots movement that is incomparable to any other in the country.
So we will survive the dictatorship within the country but we’ve also said that we’ll take the struggle to the international community. Dictators should never be given any refuge, any hiding place anywhere in the democratic world. And now that I’m out of the country, I intend to take that battle to the international community.
You mentioned grassroots support the party has got. We have seen a revolution in Sudan, which historically under the Omar al-Bashir regime was openly repressive. It was at war with four rebel movements across the country, it faced widespread condemnation, international sanctions and so on. And it was eventually those people organising at grassroots level across the country that secured the overthrow of Bashir. He also claimed to have won several elections and so on. We saw the recent movement in Nigeria against police brutality, all of a sudden many young people went out on the streets. We’ve seen similar attempts to organise in Zimbabwe…
And Malawi too, and Kenya. And in Malawi and Kenya of course the courts overturned the election results. What prospect for that sort of grassroots mobilisation is there in Tanzania, do you think? And how best could those activists pressure the government?
Given what happened last month, it is very clear to us as a party, and it should be very clear to anyone who follows the politics in Tanzania, and to the Tanzanian people themselves, that the path to democratic change is effectively blocked. After five years of terrible repression, of prohibition of lawful political activity, and after this organised rigging which involved the armed forces and the security forces generally, and the entire government machinery, the only way that we’re going to build a democracy in Tanzania is through mass action, of the Sudanese type, of the type of Malawi.
Because in Malawi the courts did not turn over turn the presidential result on their own, they were faced with a popular rebellion in the streets, in the cities and towns and villages all over Malawi. That is the only way that Tanzania is going to happen as well. Given the fact that there is no way now, on the basis of what has just happened, there is no way now for democratic change through the ballot box. So people are going to take their country back through mass action.
Now I know and you very well know that these things take time, the masses had to go through from who hell as it were, in Sudan Bashir was in powerful for over 30 years. So people have to go through very tough days ahead in order to realise that the only way there is going to be change is through their own initiative, through their own sacrifices, obviously with the help of the international community.
And that’s why I said we want the international community not to give any refuge to this regime. We want the world to sanction these criminals to make sure that the impunity with which they are operating in Tanzania is not condoned by the international community. So my hope is the people of Tanzania are not that different from the people of Malawi or Kenya or Uganda or Sudan. At some point, something is going to give.
And when you say mass action what do you mean in practical terms? Demonstrations in the streets?
Demonstrations in the streets, strikes, boycotts, the kind of democratic civil action that has changed governments all over, literally.
And when do you think we’re going to see the start of this campaign?
Now that is a very difficult question to answer because my understanding of history, these things do not have a calendar. You cannot put dates on when the people are going to have enough of oppression and decide to take matters on their hands.
But your party presumably it’s going to be one of the groups leading this campaign. Do you have ideas about how to confront the Magufuli government? How to get people onto the streets without risking their lives? What is the plan there?
That is again difficult to say because in my understanding of history, mass action takes time to prepare, it takes a long time, and it is never painless. If you say without risking their lives, that is not how history operates. Democracies are built with terrible sacrifices that is the history of humanity. So we are working to have to pay our fair share of those terrible sacrifices in order to build our democracy. When it will happen, that is not something that I can answer right away.
And in terms of the disposition of the various opposition parties, is there a sense that they should all get together and unite in this campaign? Because there were negotiations that resulted in your candidacy in the end, but I think in the run-up to the elections there was some manoeuvring between the various parties and it took them a while to agree on a common candidate and so on. Can the opposition parties agree on this campaign against the Magufuli government and against these elections?
I think when you speak of the opposition parties you are basically speaking of Chadema and ACT Wazalendo. The rest of the political parties in existence in Tanzania exist on paper only, they don’t really have any presence on the ground. And if you saw during the election campaign basically it was a two horse race, even though the official documents of the national electoral commission showed 16 presidential candidates.
Basically in mainland Tanzania it is Chadema, in Zanzibar it is ACT Wazalendo. And we had a working relationship, I wouldn’t call it a coalition, we had a working relationship, and that working relationship was a result of the problems with our electoral law and the law related to political parties.
READ MORE Tanzania: New rails, old problems
Basically in short, if you want to form an electoral coalition, you have to bare your soul to the registrar of political parties, an appointee of Magufuli who anyone knows will take all your secrets to Magufuli and his intelligence services, and at the end of the day he also has the power to block the coalition. So we’re not going to share our secrets with the enemy and therefore we had to organise an arrangement in which we endorsed each other’s candidates without writing anything down because of the legal constraints that we faced.
In terms of the future, I cannot see any way in which we will not work together because what happened to Chadema also happened even more violently to ACT Wazalendo in Zanzibar. So we are both victims of the Magufuli regime. We are all persecuted, it will not be wise or prudent to not work together. So in the weeks and months ahead, we will work together.
What about your own perspectives and how you got into politics? Now as they say politics is a blood sport, but in your case literally because the security forces did by all accounts try to kill you in 2017, you’ve been threatened with a death sentence, you’re now in exile from your home. What drove you into politics? Why did you make that decision to get into this when you did? Did you know it was going to be like this?
I grew up in a family that was intensely political. When I say intensely political, I do not mean to say my family held political positions, my dad was a minor functionary civil servant, he started during the colonial period […] and then he was the chairman of district council when the local governments were formed in the 1980s. But we were always a family that discussed politics, we were always intensely interested in political matters, in world affairs, in politics generally.
So I grew up in that environment. But also growing up in the 1970s in the time of a huge change in the country. I like to say I’m a child of Ujamaa, of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s socialism. What it meant to me personally was to see our village destroyed in 1974 by the government because we were supposed to be building our houses on a more straight line, and the villagers didn’t understand these things, and therefore literally three quarters of the rural population of Tanzania had their lives turned upside down in the course of three years. And my people – and I was a child, I was about 6 years old then, I witnessed that. Growing up therefore I grew up with a very serious attitude towards politics, a very keen interest in matters of politics. I was very active in student politics at the university during my university years.
What did you read at university? What were your subjects?
I trained as a lawyer at the University of Dar Es Salaam, and then I later trained at the University of Warwick in the British West Midlands. So I’m a trained lawyer, but in my school years, in my college years, that was a period of huge political upheavals that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the fall of these single-party regimes all across the continent.
So I have always been intensely political, I have always been very militant politically. And in 1995, a year after I graduated from the University of Dar Es Salaam, we had our first multiparty election in Tanzania, and I ran as a candidate. I was actually a student at University of Warwick. I came back to Tanzania, contested the parliamentary seat, was defeated heavily and went back to school. I came back again in 2010 and this time I was elected. I defended my seat in 2015. So generally to answer your question in short, I have been very intensely political throughout my youth and my adult life.
You mentioned growing up under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. A lot of people say we’re now in Tanzania back to a de-facto if not de jure, one-party state. Looking at the successive presidents and the later disavowal of Nyerere, do you think he has to be given any credit at all for keeping the country together and for the sort of politics – although it was a one-party state under his rule – do you think political conditions were easier in terms of freedom of expression and civil rights and liberties in the Nyerere one-party era than they are today in Magufuli’s nominal multiparty era?
Mwalimu Nyerere is our secular saint, and time is long overdue for him to be taken from that pedestal. He was a great man in many respects, in many respects he was a great man. But what we have now with Magufuli, this is the logical conclusion of Mwalimu Nyerere’s legacy. What we have with Magufuli is the ultimate conclusion […] the logical extension or conclusion in my view of the Nyerere legacy. What the country has suffered for nearly 60 years of independence is an imperial presidency, is a presidency that is almost totally unaccountable to any institution or to any person except to god.
And that imperial presidency was created by Mwalimu Nyerere in 1962. We got independence in 1961, we were a parliamentary democracy of the Westminster time, the prime minister and the government were accountable to parliament. And a year later we became a republic with a presidential system. From that time on to this day, the president is literally about the law.
Now Magufuli has been absolutely violent and as obnoxious as any dictator could be, but Magufuli has exercised the powers of the presidency that he inherited from his predecessors, all of them. And those powers were created by Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
The vast presidential powers that were created in 1962 and consolidated over decades have largely remained intact. What we are reaping with Magufuli is what was planted by Mwalimu Nyerere in 1962.
The Nyerere years were also years of serious human rights abuses, there were political killings of very prominent political leaders, nationalist leaders. You wouldn’t hear this because of course our history is largely propaganda, built around the name of Julius Kambarage Nyerere. But there were serious human rights abuses. There were serious cases of abuse of power.
There was no free press, there was no freedom of expression, there was no right to organise. There was extensive use of preventive detention powers and all the paraphernalia of oppression that was inherited at independence from the colonial despotism. So it is very easy to point an accusing finger at Magufuli, but let’s be fair to the man, he has not changed a single provision of the constitution. He’s using the constitution that was created by all his predecessors, and that constitution was put in place by Mwalimu Nyerere in 1962.
Have you ever had a proper encounter like this long conversation with President Magufuli?
I served for five years in parliament with him. He was a cabinet minister and a member of parliament like myself. Therefore, I know him fairly closely. When I was in college at the University of Dar Es Salaam he was doing his post-grad, I knew him from a distance. But I spent five years in parliament with him. And I can tell you the man doesn’t have any skin for criticism, any skin. They say a thin skin, Magufuli doesn’t have any skin whatsoever. He takes any criticism very personal, he did that as a member of parliament, as a cabinet minister, and now that he is president and he can order people to be killed, we have seen what he is.
Right, so it didn’t surprise you?
No, it did not surprise me at all. Actually I was perhaps the only person who called him out during those first days of his presidency, when everyone was falling over themselves with praise for this new messiah. I said the nation should be mourning, we should be preparing for terrible days ahead. And that’s why perhaps I was shot because I never let up on him.