A transient democracy: My reflections of 30 years of multi-party politics in Tanzania

Cadres of the ruling party CCM during a National Executive Council meeting to review government performance after the 2015 General Election.

What you need to know:

  • I made an argument to the effect that Tanzanian democracy was rather granted by the State and not a result of a serious pressure from concerned citizens through a protracted struggle. It is upon this premise I intend to build my case

Prior to July 1st, 2022 I took time to read written records about a movement towards re introduction of pluralistic politics in Tanzania.

On the onset it is important to note that since January, 2021 I have embarked on writing a book about our recent political history and my participation in it. The latter has inspired me in conducting an extensive research on the subject culminating to this article today.

My conclusion is a bit controversial. I made an argument to the effect that Tanzanian democracy was rather granted by the State and not a result of a serious pressure from concerned citizens through a protracted struggle. It is upon this premise I intend to build my case. Subsequently upon being offered State democracy on a platter, after 25 years of experimenting with multiparty democracy, the State seems to take it back regardless of its growing maturity underpinned by a one-time vibrant parliament I was part of.

My major concern is the sustainability of this State granted democracy which I find lacking; it shows signs of being short-lived: a transient.

However, the best part to the story is, the presence of an opportunity to move towards a more vibrant democracy. As we mark 30 years of multiparty democracy in the country, it is a time for reflection to correct past mistakes and consolidate our democracy.

I acknowledge that there was a movement by e few Tanzanians to demand plurality and end a one party dictatorship. As a youth then I saw and I read about people who risked their lives for democracy. James Mapalala, Seif Sharif Hamad, Shaaban Khamis Mloo, Mabere Marando, Prince Mahinja Bagenda, Chief Abdallah Fundikira, Christopher Kasanga Tumbo, Mashaka Nindi Chimoto, Hamad Rashid Mohamed, Chiku Aflah Abwao are some of the names of those who were then at the forefront. There were young people too in the struggle who sacrificed their education for democracy.

These are Francis Mbatia, Antony Komu, Msafiri Mtemelwa, Ismail Jussa and many others. There were women of all classes of life but the one who was more public initially was Mama Chiku Abwao. Later we had names like Mary Kabigi, Fatma Maghimbi, Teddy Kasela-Bantu, Edith Munuo and others. Some of these people through a national Committee called NCCR (National Committee for Construction and Reform) in Tanzania mainland and KAMAHURU in Zanzibar led the demand for democracy in our country. However, these demands were captured by CCM and later the state who decided to give us their kind of democracy.

It was not negotiated democracy, neither a demand driven one. It was a supplied democracy. And this is possibly the original sin!

Our founding President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, was very instrumental in this form of a supplied democracy. The striking revelation about the decision by CCM and the state to supply us with ‘democracy’ is in President Benjamin Mkapa’s book which I quote hereunder.

Mkapa writes “Another major reform which Mwalimu had fostered, which was instituted by President Mwinyi, was the change from single party to multipartyism.

I remember many of us in the party were unhappy about that, but he persuaded us. He had seen the agitation for change in the satellite Soviet states, and we recognized that on a smaller scale there was agitation for change in our country for moving from a single party to a multiparty political system.

During the discussion within the party about this issue Mwalimu said it would be wrong not to respond to this desired change, adding: “We must change ourselves or we will not have any control over those changes. We will be swept along as if by waves”.

This means the fear of being changed and the desire to drive or control the change, were the motives behind Nyerere’s and eventually CCM’s move.

In President Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s book, he narrates in detail about the political reforms that took place under his leadership. He elaborates the debates within the party, strong opposition which was swiftly diluted by the argument of ‘lead the change or be changed’.

CCM called a special National Conference and in it the then Prime Minister John Malecela counseled the delegates “better playing football on a stadium, where regulations are known, than the one under the table with darkness”.

After this CCM resolved to give us a ‘democracy’. It was a very well-orchestrated move. The then foreign minister Mkapa prepared a paper for the party national executive committee meeting in February 1990, then formation of the famous Nyalali Commission the same month. This was followed by a one to one meeting between President Mwinyi and a CCM ideologue Kingunge Ngombale-Mwiru to discuss the report by Nyalali and then CCM special conference. The stage was set, ready for a State granted democracy.

From 28th April to 8th May, 1992, parliament debated two historical bills. One was to change the constitution to allow multiparty system and the other to regulate the registration of political parties. Reading from the hansards of the debate you clearly see the well managed stage.

All CCM members of parliament in a single party parliament approved the changes. Prime Minister Malecela and his Chief Whip Edward Lowassa made moving speeches to introduce the two bills which ensured that CCM continued to dominate our politics. During the debate some members even suggested for CCM to be registered through a constitutional provision.

Eventually CCM did not follow the same registration process as other parties did. It was legislated in law: the political parties act number 5 of 1992. Since then parties participated in elections, opposition won some constituencies (including myself three times in two different constituencies).

From the first election under the State granted multiparty system in 1995 to 2015 elections, electoral democracy grew stronger through increasing opposition seats in parliament as well as parliamentary and presidential election results. On average the opposition was winning up to 40 per cent of the votes. Our democracy was maturing, slowly but surely.

Come 2015 and the hell broke loose. After the most competitive election in which CCM nearly lost presidency, the new CCM leader decided to ‘take back the democracy’. For five years up to 2021 the country went into the process of being a de facto one party state. A political scientist Michaela Collord summarizes this succinctly: A first, there were direct efforts to restrict opposition organizing and mobilizing. In June 2016, following several months during which opposition Member of Parliament (MP)s’ activities in parliament were restricted, 22 various individuals were charged with insulting the president, 23 and several newspapers suspended and the police issued an order banning party rallies until the 2020 election campaigns.

The then President and freshly elected CCM chairman John Magufuli said, “we can’t allow people to politicize each and every thing, every day,” then adding, “When will people work and build the nation?” this move led hampering continued party-building efforts by the opposition.

Around the same time, the Registrar of Political Parties exacerbated an internal split within one of the largest opposition party CUF, recognizing and channeling state funding to a minority faction whilst refusing to recognize the faction headed by the party’s secretary-general, Seif Sharif Hamad. This intervention ultimately led Hamad’s faction to break away in 2019, joining ACT-Wazalendo, the party I lead. What remained of CUF appeared to be little more than a state-backed party with minimal support.

The fifth phase government combined these direct efforts to undermine opposition party organizing with numerous more indirect strategies.

This was a period of heightened intimidation and violence against opposition leaders and supporters. For example, it was during this period that the opposition Chief Whip, Tundu Lissu, survived an assassination attempt, conducted by “unknown persons.”

I was arrested 16 times over five years and convicted of sedition by the district court few months before the election. Many other opposition leaders and legislators were found guilty of seemingly trumped charges including Joseph Mbilinyi of Mbeya urban, Halima Mdee of Kawe, Esther Bulaya of Bunda and Freeman Mbowe of Hai.

The government further weakened the opposition through a series of legal and electoral interventions. CCM encouraged a wave of defections by elected councilors and MPs from the opposition to CCM, defections that then triggered by-elections in which CCM selected the former opposition politicians who invariably won their by-elections amidst widespread irregularities. “In another authoritarian legal maneuver, the CCM majority in Parliament voted to amend the Political Parties Act in January 2020, granting the Registrar of Political Parties sweeping new powers, which opposition politicians warned would entrench “one-party” rule. Among other things, the new amendments make it easier to d-register parties and give the Registrar the authority to revoke individuals’ party membership and thereby remove them from party leadership. Finally, in a development that directly prefigured the 2020 elections, CCM won 99 percent of the 12,000 village chairmanships and 4,000 street-level leadership positions contested in the November 2019 “street” elections. Tanzania of November 2020 was similar to Tanzania of April 1992 when parliament met to discuss the introduction of multiparty system.

The state through CCM supplied us a democracy and the same decided to take it back. Since it was a supplied democracy, not a result of a protracted struggle, the supplier took it back without any resistance. Some people would argue that there was a resistance, yes, but very few individuals fought back to defend democracy and many succumbed to the system. Some people who spent all their lives building our democracy resorted to collaborating with the state to muzzle the same thing they built.

We are now at the 1992-1995 moment, like parties freshly founded and starting to organize. I was moved by an opinion piece President Samia Suluhu Hassan wrote recently on marking 30 years of multiparty democracy in which she promised political and electoral reforms. These and constitutional reforms are fundamental towards rebuilding our democracy. Her governing philosophy of 4Rs – Reconciliation, Resilience, Reforms and Rebuilding provides hope to many of us.

However, there is a danger of going back to a granted democracy. I suggest that it has to be a negotiated democracy as we may not surmount energy to have a demand driven one.

Zitto Kabwe is the Leader of ACT-Wazalendo Party and a former MP