Social media as an alternative in Tanzanian politics

Opposition legislators walk out of Parliament in protest in 2016. Most opposition MPs use social media platforms as an alternative following a government ban on rallies. PHOTO|FILE

In her excellent article Squeezing civic space: restrictions on civil society organisations and the linkages with human rights, Antoine Buyse explains that labelling is one of the means through which the state reacts to political opponents for the purposes of threatening and exposing them to potential risks facing them, including public retaliation.

Other means of state’s reactions include passing and enactment of restrictive laws and regulations to curb the practices of opponents. Since social media provides a space for political activities, there have been attempts to also restrict the use of this space in the same ways traditional spaces have been restricted.

Thus, similar means of controlling and reacting to opponents are also applicable to social media space. We can categorize these into formal and informal means.

Formal means include Laws, Acts, Regulations and official social media accounts while informal means include labeling, using of individual citizens’ accounts to support the state’s practices and to respond to opponents as well as using hashtags - as explained in our previous article published here on 26th December 2018.

In Tanzania, the use of social media space has formally been restricted by a number of enacted legislations including the Cybercrime Act (2015) and the Online Content Regulations (2018).

Nevertheless, efforts to regulate and hence squeezing the use of social media platforms as political space for opponents or critical citizens who are actively using their citizenship rights have included informal means.

In this brief article, we will focus on labeling – as, arguably, one of the informal and often indirect ways through which the state may be reacting to its opponent on social media space.

“Mabeberu”, “Mashangazi”, “Wachochezi”, “Wahaini”, “Makuwadi” and “Wanaotumiwa” are some of popular labels used on social media platforms in Tanzania to identify a loose network of people who are perceived to be leaning towards a certain opposing political stance. To note is, these labels are used in a fluid way and they are indicative. Indicative in that they label a person against or in support of something.

They are fluid because of their changing application. For example, “mashangazi”, which is a label for women/ladies who are critical to government’s way of doing things and in trying to defend the rule of law – has turned out to be almost a “qualification” for any bold lady who can openly and strongly stand up against injustice.

This “qualification” aspect of the label has led to incidences of ranking, whereby platform users try to rate the top most “shangazi.” It has turned out to be a positive label in certain aspects.

“Mabeberu” is another label that associates political opponents with external/foreign agents to destroy the country’s economy and values. This particular label has a historical connotation, whereby during independence struggles and in implementing the Ujamaa policies under the Arusha Declaration (1967), the rhetoric in the country used “mabeberu” as a name for Western powers that interfered in our internal affairs for the purposes of controlling our economy - a sort of neo-colonialism.

“Mabeberu”, thus, have a political –economy connotation. It highlights societal path dependence and perhaps the state’s view on the economic system. In light of that, “mabeberu” as a label in social media cannot be understood in vacuum. It has to be read and understood in a wider context of the ongoing government practices, policies and political economy.

On the other side, “Wazalendo” is a label that is being used to identify social media users who seem to be supporting any action carried out by the state. The use of the label “Wazalendo”, which means Patriots in English – is selectively and narrowly used to imply that if you love your country, you will support anything the government does. In relations to that, some Whatsapp groups within the country have carried out discussions as to what Wazalendo means? Questions remain: does being “Mzalendo” impede one from being critical to the actions of her country? Does it mean being a subjective citizen? Does it erase the ability to think and question?

Looking back at “labeling” as an informal- yet apparently systematic – way of state’s reaction to the political use of social media space, it is crucial to understand that such labeling may be feckless resulting from evolving meanings and constructions in the use of the same labels. Labeling in Tanzania, if ever used by the state, has arguably been counterproductive.

The political opponents users of social media space have, in turn, used ‘labeling’ as their way of coordinating their arguments and marshal support. In this way, labeling might end up being a “weapon of the weak”. Further analysis on this is encouraged.

Dr Aikande Kwayu is a development consultant at Bumaco Ltd and a honorary research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.