Violence On ‘The Island of Peace’: Who’s Killing Tanzanian Opposition Politicians?

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DAR ES SALAAM (Bloomberg) — An opposition politician and a campaigner were hacked to death with machetes. A lawmaker’s car was riddled with bullets and he was left fighting for his life.

These shadowy attacks weren’t in one of East Africa’s war zones, but in Tanzania — a country that hasn’t seen serious upheaval in decades and whose populist president, John Magufuli, is on a mission to revitalize the region’s second-biggest economy. With the unidentified perpetrators still at large, the U.S. and European Union are voicing alarm over a rising tide of politically motivated violence. The opposition is afraid.

“We in Tanzania were known as an island of peace — now we are seeing killings, threats,” said Salum Mwalimu, deputy secretary-general of Chadema, the main opposition party. “If you criticize the government, ruling party or president your life is in danger.” Authorities deny any link to the violence and police say the incidents are being fully investigated.

Clampdown on Dissent

The bloodshed marks a worrying turn for Tanzania, a gas- and gold-rich country of about 56 million people. It was united after a 1964 uprising on the Zanzibar archipelago, but remained peaceful even as rebellions wracked neighboring Uganda, Rwanda was torn apart by genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo plunged into the deadliest conflict since World War II.

February’s killings of a local politician in central Tanzania and an election campaigner in the commercial hub, Dar es Salaam, followed the attempted assassination of lawmaker Tundu Lissu in the capital, Dodoma, in September. The incidents all took place amid what critics say is an unprecedented clampdown on dissent.

Tundu Lissu waves from his wheelchair in Jan. 2018.Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

Five newspapers have been suspended since June for alleged errors while opposition lawmakers have been detained after criticizing parliament. A journalist investigating the killings of police officers and administrative officials in an eastern province last year has disappeared. New York-based Human Rights Watch said there’s “serious concern” over the “shrinking space for the expression of divergent views of governance.”

Popular Support

Polling by Afrobarometer conducted in May and June and published this month suggests Tanzanians may not mind at least some of the restrictions. Fifty-seven percent of 2,400 people surveyed agreed the government should be able to ban “any organization that goes against its policies.” Fifty percent trusted the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party “a lot” and 62 percent said the country was on the right track.

Magufuli, who was elected in late 2015 and has found popular support for his bids to tackle corruption, has condemned the violence. When a student was killed by a stray bullet near a protest in February, the president swiftly promised a probe and dozens were arrested, including police officers.

Magufuli’s communications director, Gerson Msigwa, referred inquiries to the police, saying “anyone can just point fingers at the president’s office.” Police spokesman Barnabas Mwakalukwa said he couldn’t comment on incidents under investigation but that the force is politically neutral.

Government Critics

“We don’t exactly know where the attack is coming from, but we can only suspect,” said Frederick Sumaye, who was prime minister from 1995 to 2005 and later joined Ukama, an opposition coalition. “If it is an opposition leader or a reporter critical of the government that gets abducted and disappears then you can only suspect government organs are doing that activity.”

Ben Payton, head of Africa at Bath, England-based global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said there’s no indication the attacks were state-sanctioned, but they are more likely to be “the actions of over-zealous” supporters of the ruling party. The violence shows the “increasingly constrained and insecure environment” the opposition faces, he said.

For Salva Rweyemamu, who was communications director for Magufuli’s predecessor, Jakaya Kikwete, there’s a “world of difference” between the current administration and Kikwete’s, which he said recognized that democracy and economic freedom were “necessary in a modern world.”

Rweyemamu described “collective disgruntlement” in the CCM over the crackdown. Various iterations of the party have ruled ever since Tanzania was unified.

“We cannot call it a full-blown dictatorship, but we are getting very close to one-man rule,” he said.

After the attacks by unknown people, former premier Sumaye said being an outspoken critic means he often fears for his life.

“I take a little care of my whereabouts,” he said. “But there isn’t much you can do but pray.”

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