Tanzania’s Opposition Leader was Shot 16 Times. Now He's Challenging the President

Tundu Lissu is the main contender standing in the way of Tanzanian president John Magufuli’s attempt at securing a second term in office.
October 15, 2020, 11:00am
Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in a 2017 attack, reacts to supporters as he returns after three years in exile to challenge President John Magufuli.
Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in a 2017 attack, reacts to supporters as he returns after three years in exile to challenge President John Magufuli. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Three years ago, Tundu Lissu, 52, was flown to Kenya from Tanzania after he was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen at his home in the capital Dodoma. He later flew to Belgium where he had been receiving medical attention in a self-imposed exile.

In July this year, he returned to Tanzania to run for the presidency against the incumbent John Magufuli. Elections are scheduled for the 28th of October.

Lissu is the main opposition contender standing in the way of Magufuli’s attempt at securing a second term in office. His party, Chedema (Party for Democracy and Progress) and the other key opposition party, Alliance for Change and Transparency party (ACT-Wazalendo), plan to unite and front Lissu as the sole change candidate in a political environment critics and human rights activists say is marred by human rights abuses, harassment and a clampdown on dissent and the free press.

Human Rights Watch last month accused the Tanzanian government of stepping up “repression of opposition parties, non-governmental organisations, and the media ahead of the country’s general elections.”

Despite assurances from the government of free and fair elections, opposition parties have reported facing a series of oppressive actions. In addition, Tanzania’s electoral body has banned some critical local civil society groups like the Legal and Human Rights Centre from monitoring the vote.

“The political situation in Tanzania is unfortunately not getting better going into elections,” says Maria Sarungi Tsehai, an activist and communication expert. “The tension between the opposition parties and the ruling party that controls the State apparatus are high.” Tsehai’s civil society group was deregistered and another where she serves as a director was suspended. An online TV station she manages, Kwanza TV, is also under attack, she said.

On the 3rd of October, the National Electoral Commission’s Ethics Committee suspended Lissu from campaigning for seven days for election ethic violations on seditious remarks he made suggesting Magufuli planned to rig the election.

“Banning Mr. Lissu from campaigning does not come as a huge surprise, as we had expected that repression tactics used against Mr. Lissu would increase in intensity as the polls drew closer,” Zaynab Mohamed from the NKC Research tells VICE News via email.

Nearly 40 opposition parliamentary candidates were disqualified from running in the election on dubious claims, many other opposition members were arrested or kidnapped allowing the ruling party’s candidates to win seats unchallenged. Earlier in September, the Tanzanian Civil Aviation refused to clear a helicopter Tundu Lissu had planned on using for his campaign trail.

Tanzania, once a beacon of stability, peace and democracy in East Africa, has gradually been sliding towards autocracy since Magufuli took power in 2015. In September, Lissu’s convoy was tear gassed by the police and the Chadema offices in Arusha were firebombed, the party said. Several opposition members have been kidnapped, attacked and murdered including one Chadema politician Martin Anney who was kidnapped and murdered in August. Supporters of Chadema have also been accused of retaliatory violence against the CCM in recent weeks.

“President Magufuli and the NEC must cease all intimidation of opposition candidates,” Robert Amsterdam, an international lawyer advising opposition leader Tundu Lissu tells VICE News. “The safety and continued candidacy of Tundu Lissu must also be upheld, who has faced both threats to his life and continuing attempts to disqualify his candidacy for president.”

The Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution) the ruling party, has been in power since independence in 1961, and President Magufuli, 60, is widely expected to win a second term, not least because the system in charge of the elections is staffed by presidential appointees. Nicknamed “The Bulldozer”, Magufuli came to power on a nationalism and anti-corruption mandate, forcing multinational mining companies to pay higher taxes, subsequently increasing government revenues, but denies cracking down on civil society and the opposition.

The situation in Tanzania, especially the suspension of Lissu’s campaign, has attracted the interest of the American government. US Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Lissu’s suspension on “bogus charges raises serious questions about the independence of Tanzania’s electoral commission,” in a statement. “We will not hesitate to consider consequences for those found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process,” the US Embassy in Tanzania added.

“Due to his international reputation, he has largely been saved from violence and force, but this might change in the coming weeks as the ruling administration becomes more desperate to cling to power,” Mohamed says, speaking of Lissu.

The opposition says these are attempts to boost the ruling party’s hold on power. The government and the National Electoral Commission has rejected the allegations.

Lissu, a human rights lawyer, has promised widespread reforms to ensure the respect of citizens’ rights and freedoms and stimulation of the private sector including large cuts on loan interest rates. “If he wins in the upcoming polls, he will continue on this path of authoritarianism,” says Mohamed.

The head directorate of presidential communication Gerson Msigwa declined to comment. Hassan Abbas, Tanzania’s chief government spokesman did not respond to request for comments.

“Under the current circumstances, the opposition will definitely not have a fair playing ground,” Tsehai says. “It remains to be seen how the tallying of the votes will be handled but obviously this will also a distorted process in favor of the ruling party."