2019: Notable year for human rights record in Tanzania

Dar police boss Lazaro Mambosasa (left) was put on the spotlight over the arrest of activist Tito Magoti. (right) Tito Magoti, a rights activist whose forceful arrest sparked huge criticism from right activists.

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Should the country’s human rights defenders have any New Year resolutions of ensuring some notable rights violations are brought to an end, they must brace to encounter setbacks and frustrations from what is happening on the ground.

Dar es Salaam. From a human rights perspective, twelve months of the year 2019 are not seen by rights activists to have bore fruit and made progress as far as respect for people’s basic rights and freedom is concerned.

Should the country’s human rights defenders have any New Year resolutions of ensuring some notable rights violations are brought to an end, they must brace to encounter setbacks and frustrations from what is happening on the ground.

Concerns on declining press freedom, the ban on political rallies, the push for an arrangement that would ensure a free and fair elections are some of the issues that continued to test the commitment of authorities in ensuring respect for human rights principles.

In fact, 2019, the year that the United Nations General Assembly assigned as the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, may well have come with another crisis if it were not for the authorities’ decision to revive the Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRGG) following the incessant demands from rights activists since 2017.

While it is true that there were many incidents which activists have described as blatant violations of human rights and the rule of law, the most recent is the ‘kidnapping’ of rights activists Tito Magoti and Theodory Faustine. Their earlier absence in the public eyes sent people into a frenzy which forced the police to clarify that it was they who ‘arrested’ the two.

Mr Tito Magoti and Mr Theodory Giyan face three counts of leading a criminal gang, possession of a computer programme designed to commit an offence and money laundering. The former is a Public Affairs’ officer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) while the latter is associated with a digital solutions company, iPF Softwares. They are both at Segerea Remand prison awaiting their case scheduled on January 7, 2020 for mentioning.

Already, a campaign to pressurise the authorities to let the activists free has been launched with the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, becoming the latest organisation to request human rights defenders worldwide to intervene in the situation.

The Observatory is a partnership of International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT).

Journalists and the press, in general, were neither spared from the wreck of 2019 violations of people’s basic freedoms. According to the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), a local press freedom advocacy group, incidents of violations of press freedom, including threats and interference in editorial independence, increased in Tanzania from eight in 2015 to 28 cases in 2019.

The findings were from an investigative mission to inquire on claims of violations of press freedom allegedly by unknown people, some state and non-state actors. The mission noticed the presence of serious violations of press freedom by government authorities, state organs, self-styled activist and non-state actors.

Perhaps the serious blow to the country’s human rights landscape came from the government’s decision to withdraw its declaration it made under Article 34(6) of the Protocol establishing the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR) which gives individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) a direct access to the court once the national judicial mechanisms have been exhausted.

Tanzania said it took the decision after its unspecified reservations it made when depositing the declaration have not been honoured but lawyers said there were no reservations.

The decision came soon after the African Union rights body condemned massive human rights violations by authorities, especially reluctance to investigate serious human rights breaches like that of the disappearance of freelance journalist Azory Gwanda.

Tanzania’s withdrawal from the court also came at a time reports indicate the country had the highest number of cases filed by individuals and NGOs as well as judgments issued against it by the African Court. Out of the 70 decisions issued by the court by September 2019, 28 decisions, or 40 per cent, were on Tanzania.

Meanwhile, the political parties continued to raise the alarm; that they were operating under stringent conditions in the past three years as the government’s ban on political rallies remained in force.

The year 2019 also witnessed the passing of amendments into the Political Parties Act which Tanzania’s political observers described as draconian.

They feel that the changes gives too much power to the political parties’ registrar to interfere with the parties internal affairs. Amidst these negative developments, nonetheless, there was also some positive steps taken by the government to try expressing its commitments to issues pertaining to human rights and good governance. This includes the revival of the State human rights and good governance commission.

Since the stepping down of the former chairman, renowned lawyer Bahame Tom Nyanduga and his commissioners, the CHRGG remained inactive, making many of its tasks taken over by independent rights organisations which are blaming authorities over alleged failures to uphold the principles of human rights and the rule of law .

President John Magufuli finally sworn-in the new CHRGG commission and asked the officials to go and help people whose rights are violated. President Magufuli’s directives to the commission were timely, to say the least, as they came immediately before Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released scathing reports on the human rights situation in Tanzania.

Launched on October 28, 2019, the two organisations expressed concerns the state of human rights in Tanzania.

The application of various laws, noted the reports, has had a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, with people’s censoring actions perceived as critical of the government for fear of prosecution or other reprisals.

“As President Magufuli marks four years in office [in November], he must carefully reflect on his government’s record of disembowelling the country’s human rights framework,” Mr Roland Ebole, Amnesty International’s Tanzania researcher, said then. “Government must repeal all oppressive laws being used to clamp down on dissent, and urgently end human rights violations and abuses.”

Other human rights-related concerns in 2019 were the frequent anti-human rights statements made by senior government officials which are often followed by cracking down on individuals and organisations.

Rights activists have also expressed uneasiness with the rhetoric, often coupled with arbitrary arrests and threats to deregister nongovernmental groups, which they think has stifled independent reporting by journalists and public discussion on human rights violations and abuses including in the context of the upcoming elections.

“Tanzania should show true commitment to protecting and fulfilling the rights to freedom of expression and association. The authorities need to put a stop to harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists, and opposition members,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.