A woman walks by a wall of political posters in Zanzibar.
A woman walks past a wall with posters of presidential candidates in Zanzibar's Stone Town (Photo by PATRICK MEINHARDT/AFP via Getty Images)

How Tanzania Got To This Point

After internet slowdowns, arrests, and violence, Tanzania’s 2020 elections have not been free or fair.

Tanzania’s election results were announced on Friday, but they are far from conclusive. Residents across the country have been silenced by a social media blackout and sluggish internet, as security forces killed almost a dozen voters last week and have continued to arrest opposition leaders. 

While the electoral commission announced that President John Magufuli won a second five-year term with over 84% of the votes, observers and opposition politicians have said that the election was marred by irregularities, voter intimidation, and violence. Tundu Lissu of the Chadema Party, the key opposition leader who stood in the way of President John Magufuli’s attempt at securing a second term, has accused the electoral commission of fraud. “Whatever happened yesterday was not an election, it is not an election by any election standard, be it in Tanzania or international best practices,” Lissu, a human rights lawyer and one of 14 other presidential hopefuls running this year, said on Thursday in a press conference. “We will not accept the results.”


Lissu was briefly arrested on Monday, according to Robert Amsterdam, Lissu’s international lawyer, before he was released a few hours later. “An absolute clear sign that Tanzania is now a one-party dictatorship without rule of law,” Amsterdam told VICE News.

“We believe that nothing short of a new election will satisfy the Tanzanian people who voted by our estimate by a 70-30 margin for the opposition,” added Amsterdam after Lissu’s release.  “Let’s be clear if [Magufuli] had actually won there would have been celebration and no internet lockdown. This was a complete farce and the world knows.”

Several rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Access Now, and CPJ, have accused the government of stifling supporters of the opposition by blocking the internet and throttling social media. Last week, residents in Tanzania said they were unable to access different messaging platforms, and the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority told telecom service providers to halt certain services. Vodacom Tanzania has also been accused of blocking messages, in an incident that has caught the attention of UK lawmakers

Tanzania’s elections have not always gone this way, but experts say it was only a matter of time before the country got to this point, as Magufuli’s leadership has sent the East African nation down a new path. “President Magufuli’s decision to bring about this apparent authoritarian landslide is rooted in that vision of development and politics,” Dan Paget, a politics and international relations lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, told VICE News.


“This is a complete fiasco,” said Maria Sarungi Tsehai, an activist and communications expert in Tanzania. “Ballot stuffing in broad daylight.” (Semistocles Kaijage, the National Electoral Commission Chairman of Tanzania, dismissed these allegations in a televised statement.)

In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago a short ferry ride from Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean, both residents and ACT-Wazalendo, Zanzibar’s opposition party, have accused police forces of killing 11 people, injuring over 100, and arresting around 300, according to Pavu Juma Abdalla, a member of the party’s secretariat. Authorities in Zanzibar denied any deaths, but at least 36 ACT-Wazalendo members and five party members have been detained including Zanzibar Presidential candidate Seif Sharif Hamad, who was arrested for the second time in a week, Amnesty International said on Saturday. 

“I call for protests,” Zitto Kabwe, the party leader of the ACT-Wazalendo, told VICE News. “The election was [marred] by widespread rigging.” 

While Tanzania’s opposition has called for nationwide protests and a new election, the country’s constitution does not permit election results to be contested after they are announced. “We are asking our people to take this matter into their own hands through peaceful mass, democratic action and protests,” Lissu added before his arrest, calling on the international community to not recognize the results. 


Tanzania, once an island of peace and stability in East Africa, has gradually been sliding towards autocracy since Magufuli took power.

While various iterations of Magufuli’s political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), have ruled Tanzania since the multiparty system was introduced in 1992, Magufuli’s leadership has changed the country dramatically. Magufuli was first elected in 2015, and he won on a platform dedicated to Tanzanian nationalism, conservative values, and ending corruption in the government. 

Once president, Magufuli swiftly cracked down on multinational mining companies and forced them to pay higher taxes, canceled expensive projects, and worked to increase government revenues. He purged more than 10,000 "ghost workers" (people who are on the payroll without actually working) from the civil service and generally attempted to abolish the governmental corruption that had plagued former president Jakaya Kikwete’s time in office.

The economy, supported by public infrastructure projects and tourism, grew by 6.9% last year. This year, the World Bank projects a 2.5% growth for the under-performing tourism sector. According to the World Bank Doing Business Report 2020, Tanzania ranks 141st out of 190 economies in ease of doing business, and in July the bank upgraded Tanzania from a low to lower-middle income country.

But Magufuli’s methods have not been without consequences, and he quickly became known as the “bulldozer.” In 2018, authorities in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, announced the creation of an anti-gay surveillance team with Magufuli’s support. Early in his tenure, as part of his campaign against “immoral behaviors,” Magufuli championed the decades-old rule that permanently expels school girls who get pregnant. This year, the country went after blogging and effectively banned VPNs. Magufuli also made it illegal to question government statistics, rendering any data the government publishes unreliable.


Tanzania stopped updating its country-wide data on the coronavirus, and Magufuli claimed that God had removed the virus in June. “We are spared from the disease because we, as Tanzanians, decided to put God first. God can do all things. We are not dying and we will not die, God loves Tanzania,” President Magufuli said to a crowd in September, while warning that masks could be infected with the virus. 

Magufuli’s unorthodox leadership and controversial policies also extended to cracking down on opposition politicians, censoring journalists, and silencing civil society. Critics of the president have been arrested, some opposition politicians killed, and Lissu himself was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen in 2017. (Lissu returned to Tanzania in July after a three-year self-imposed exile in Belgium where he was receiving medical attention following the attempt.)

“President Magufuli articulates an ideology which justifies authoritarianism,” said Paget. “He says that he is for development, and he claims that democracy is antithetical to it. To him, the more democracy there is, the more opposition there is, and the more development is frustrated.”

Former leaders have also warned of Tanzania’s specific susceptibility to authoritarianism: In 1977, Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere said that the Tanzanian constitution didn’t protect citizens: “I have sufficient powers under the constitution to be a dictator,” he noted. 


Magufuli, experts say, has taken advantage of these loose protections. “A bad president can abuse the powers given by the constitution and Magufuli has used this power,” Aikande Kwayu, a Tanzanian political scientist, told VICE News. According to Kwayu, Magufuli was also able to take advantage because of the tight relationship between Tanzania and the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, and the party’s historic roots in Tanzania’s entire governance structure. “I think (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) felt threatened,” she added, with regards to this year’s election.

“Ultimately, this is [about] power,” said Paget. “CCM seems to have resolved that to stay in power, it had to eliminate all opposition. It reads like an attempt to make the idea of future opposition victory seem not just unlikely, but impossible. This is about CCM remaining in power in perpetuity.”

Concerns about freedom of speech, especially in light of the social media blackout, have also been extensive. “There has been a wider attack on free speech, which means that the elections are not credible,” Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and author of How to Rig an Election, told VICE News. “Free and fair election cannot happen in context of such repression.” 

During his last convention before votes were cast, President Magufuli was confident his party would win the elections based on the achievements of his first term, including reviving state-run national airlines and the construction of roads and hospitals. “We need to maintain our peace and I always say there is life after elections,” Magufuli said after casting his vote in Dodoma, Tanzania’s capital. 


Now, days after the election results were announced, Tanzanians are nervous about what the coming weeks will bring. International diplomats have also raised the alarm over the election. “Reports of arrests of opposition leaders are extremely concerning,” said U.S. ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright on Twitter. “I urge the Government to ensure the safety and security of all opposition leaders, cease these targeted arrests, release detainees, restore telecommunications, and afford due process under the law to all citizens.” 

James Duddridge, the UK’s Minister for Africa, said on Sunday that Britain “troubled by the reports of violence and heavy-handed policing in the elections, including the arrest of opposition political leaders.”

Tanzania Election Watch, a regional initiative to monitor the election, said last week that the electoral process was clearly compromised. The Tanzanian election, the organization said, “far falls way below the acceptable international standards for holding free, fair, participatory, peaceful, transparent, accountable, and credible elections in line with regional and international standards for democratic election.”

Lissu, days before his arrest, asked the Commonwealth Secretariat and the African Union through his lawyer Robert Amsterdam to investigate “claims of electoral fraud, violence, and human rights violations which have delegitimized the presidential elections.” 

Though Lissu has been released, Amsterdam doesn’t think trouble in Tanzania is ending anytime soon. “20 or more are dead. Hundreds injured and no end to the violence in sight,” he said. “All Magufuli and his people can focus on is how to hold down their own people.”

“It is a gang of people with power who have the army, the guns, and the bombs who have decided to stay in power by hook or by crook,” said Lissu on Thursday.