Dar es Salaam. Opinion polls could be the new battlefront as the country heads to the 2020 General Election -- if the brief storm the recent Twaweza survey sparked is anything to go by.
Dust is yet to settle over the latest opinion that showed a sharp decline in President John Magufuli’s popularity.
Last week, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (Costech) came with guns blazing, determined to put the researchers to task for allegedly not following procedure in conducting the survey .
In a letter that went viral, further ruffling feathers, Costech demanded an explanation from Twaweza as to why action should not be taken against it for it “unsanctioned” poll.
Confusion reigned supreme, nevertheless, after senior Costech official failed to explain at a press conference in Dar es Salaam, under what section of the law it sought to punish Twaweza for conducting and releasing results of the opinion poll.
While Costech acting director general Amos Nungu admitted that they had indeed sent a letter to Twaweza, he shocked journalists after he refused to shed more light on the commission’s decision to confront Twaweza after the publication of study called Speaking Truth to Power? Citizen’s Views on Politics in Tanzania.
The ensuing confusion, flip-flopping and failure to come clean on the legal basis of Costech’s move has since led to widespread speculation. Some pundits have warned of brewing tension over opinion polls, which interestingly, until now have not had such a strong reaction from the authorities.
Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, the Change Tanzania director, says the Costech/Twaweza saga is politically-motivated and that it is a sign opinion polls are set to be a contentious issue going forward.
“Twaweza has continued to issue a number of opinion polls on different topics. In fact last year, a very similar poll on people’s views of politics and approval ratings of leaders including the President were published and announced, yet we saw no query from Costech,” she says.
She describes the commission’s move as a “clear pattern of reprimand” by government agencies aimed at putting pressure on private actors when there is an impression they are not acting as expected by the authorities.
“In my opinion, this is not only unfortunate, but also a threat to national development and security.”
Nick Kasera Oyoo, a research and communications consultant with Midas Touché East Africa, says pollsters are development stakeholders, and that polling isn’t done with “findings in the pockets.”
“We don’t do it for the purpose of demolishing, but rather building,” he says. “But if they (Costech) want (to have us ask for permits from them) they have to go through a legal procedure to make the matter stipulated in the law.”
Oyoo says that after the Twaweza issue, Costech needs to clarify its decision because the issue of opinion polling has not been clearly stipulated in the (Costech) law.
Ironically, the Costech acting director general, Dr Nungu, also told reporters last week that the commission does not have the mandate to oversee the conducting of opinion polling, and that one doesn’t have to seek a permit from them for such an exercise.
It’s not the first time that Twaweza has conducted an opinion poll. Ahead of the 2015 General Election, the organisation released results of a survey that put then-presidential candidate John Magufuli ahead of his main challenger Edward Lowassa.
The organisation also released several publications under the fifth phase administration -- none has sparked the kind of reaction as last week’s.
Fatma Karume, president of the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS), says Twaweza violated no rules or standards in its recent and previous opinion polling.
She dismissed claims by some who attribute the current confusion to different legal interpretations saying that the law is very clear and offers no differing interpretations.
Fatma says that opinion polls and scientific researches are two different things and that Costech, being the experts in the area, should have known better.
“I think it’s very important for those chosen to head various government agencies to be well-versed in the laws establishing them, otherwise they would be abusing their power,” says the firebrand lawyer.
Semkae Kilonzo, coordinator at Policy Forum Tanzania, says any attempt at stifling opinion polls is an infringement on the rights of people. “Opinion polls are crucial for a vibrant democracy as they give people the opportunity to air their views and express an opinion about how they are governed,” he says.
Commenting on Costech’s move, he adds that: “...it also risks hampering the freedom of inquiry, which is important for curious policymakers and decision-makers as they seek innovative and relevant solutions to many of society’s problems.”
Samuel Muthuka, Ipsos-synovate country manager, says it is advisable for government agencies to align their responsibilities to avoid confusion. “This will be for the betterment of both the citizens and other development stakeholders of this country.”
His organisation, he adds, has always been liaising with the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) as clearly stipulated in the law.
Apparently, Costech applied a blanket rule that gives them the power to document and register all research activities in the country and ensure they met and observed “national rules and regulations.”
Section 5 (1) of the Act of Parliament No. 7 of 1986 that established Costech says the commission is the principal advisory organ of the government on all matters relating to scientific research and technology development in the country.
And Costech research guidelines define research as “any type of systematic investigation, testing or evaluation designed to develop or contribute to a body of knowledge.” Studies here are those that usually lead to new designs, products, or processes for the overall improvement of human conditions.
Experts say that Twaweza opinion polls are public perceptions on knowledge, attitude and experience. But due to their statistical nature, Twaweza has been liaising with NBS, which, according to the law, is responsible for regulating and overseeing all statistical information collection and dissemination.
Some members of the public, seemingly taken aback by the manner in which the commission acted on the Twaweza matter, accused Costech managers of jumping the gun. They referred to the way the Registrar of NGOs acted a few months ago when she wrote a scathing letter to clerics. She was suspended after the government distanced itself from her letter.