Is citizenship now used to ‘fix’ critics?

Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) national coordinator, Onesmo Olengurumwa speaks about evictions in Loliondo at a press conference in Dar es Salaam earlier this year. Left is Loliondo Ward Women Representative, Pirias Maingo. The Immigration Department has interrogated Mr Olengurumwa over his citizenship. PHOTOIFILE

What you need to know:

  • “It’s not true that the interrogation was motivated by his activism,” the Immigration Department spokesman, Ally Mtanda told the Political Platform.

Dar es Salaam. The issue of citizenship has resurfaced again this time the victim being human rights activist, Mr Onesmo Olengurumwa. He has been questioned by the Immigration Department over the status of his citizenship. Mr Olengurumwa has described the questioning as a “smear campaign to silence me” while the Immigration Department says they were just doing their job.

“It’s not true that the interrogation was motivated by his activism,” the Immigration Department spokesman, Ally Mtanda told the Political Platform.

This is despite the fact that he was unaware if there was really interrogation to the activist and asked for more time to follow the issue up to understand which office did the interrogation and confirm if it took place.

Mr Olengurumwa, who is the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) national coordinator, was first interrogated over his nationality on July 24 by Immigration officers from Kinondoni District who made an impromptu visit to his office and grilled him for an hour.

“They did not enlighten me on the reasons behind the interrogation,” Mr Olengurumwa told Political Platform after the interrogation, “instead they just said it was an order from the top.” He was once again questioned by the same officials on September 20 at his offices at Kijitonyama in Kinondoni District.

Nationality as silencing mechanism

Mr Olengurumwa claims his interrogation has a direct link with his activism, especially as far as Maasai’s land rights in Loliondo, Arusha are concerned. Reports indicate that more than 100 Maasai huts have been burned down, allegedly, by game reserve authorities near the Serengeti National Park.

The government had plans to establish a 1,500sq km wildlife corridor around the national park for a Dubai-based company which offers hunting packages for wealthy tourists from the United Arabs Emirates (UAE). The plan would have displaced about 30,000 people, and caused ecological problems for the Maasai community, which depends on the seasonal grasses there to rear livestock.

When immigration officers first went to interrogate Mr Olengurumwa, the THRDC, the coalition he heads, had just released the statement condemning what it described as “injustice to the Maasai community perpetrated by the government.”

In an interview with a local TV Station, the minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Professor Jumanne Maghembe said the Loliondo conflict is exacerbated by over 38 Non-Governmental Organizations operating in the district and accused the leaders of these NGO’s of ambiguous nationality.

Mr Olengurumwa is one of those leaders who heads one of the NGO’s.

“Their aim is to disrupt this fighting for these helpless villagers by declaring all those speaking for the Maasai as Kenyans,” said Mr Olengurumwa adding that the issue of Loliondo is just a tip of the iceberg. He claims that there is a bigger plot to silence his fight for a just society which respects human rights.

Both Olengurumwa and other right bodies who have condemned the interrogation has categorically termed it as a “harassment” and urged the government to “stop it immediately.”

When an act becomes harassment

Jebra Kambole is an advocate of the High Court of Tanzania and a human rights activist who said that when they, lawyers, define something as harassment, they basically look at the amount and the frequency upon which the particular incident is undertaken.

“We hope that once a person has been interrogated he would’ve been immediately provided with the feedback of the interrogation,” said Mr Kambole. “This helps to prevent him from mental distress of not knowing what comes after the interrogation.”

He said that it doesn’t mean that the Immigration officers shouldn’t do their job upon a suspicious person. “But under what circumstance? How many times and for how long?” he queried.

“As we speak, Olengurumwa has not been provided with any feedback from the interrogation and he doesn’t know whether the officers will come back or not something which leaves him puzzled,” Mr Kombole further notes.

The circumstance of questiong Mr Olengurumwa’s citizenship has gave room to suspicions that it was meant to silence government critics. It seems it is also meant to send a threatening message to others so that they should keep quiet and let anything goes unquestioned.

“Something which is very dangerous if it succeeds,” he points out.

Anyone’s nationality can be questioned

Mr Mtanda argues that the Immigration activities’ are not politically motivated as it has been claimed by some who have commented on the issue.

“When suspicions over a person’s citizenship arise we just do our job so that we can ascertain ourselves and clear the doubts,” he says.

Mr Mtanda refused to comment on why it is mostly people who are perceived as critical to the government who are targeted for interrogation.

Why questioning Olengurumwa’s citizenship today and not last year?

Mr Mtanda responds; “We do interrogation based on the information we have and based on the time we get them, which, in most cases, comes from the public (raia wema). If we get information which make your citizenship suspicious (refering to the reporter), you will be interrogated.”

Not a new phenomenon

But the issue of questioning citizenship to individuals who are critical of the government is not new in the country.

On February 12, 2002 the government denied citizenship Jenerali Ulimwengu, an advocate of High Court and Chairman of the Board of weekly Raia Mwema.

Earlier in February 2001 Ulimwengu was declared by the government to be stateless. This came as a big shock and surprise to many in the country and outside as Mr Ulimwengu had been a prominent member of the civil society and had served the country in various government positions, including being a member of parliament.

He was not given reasons for the denial of citizenship nor has he been furnished with the content of the objections said to have been raised against his application.

When sought for opinion on what he thinks about the trend, Mr Ulimwengu was unable to comment saying that he was “frustrated by the government’s decision to ban his newspaper for three months” over the story it published in its latest edition and that he couldn’t divide his mind and “comment on the issue.”

The government last week declared a three-month ban of Raia Mwema, whose board of directors Mr Ulimwengu chairs.

However, in his interview with a foreign news organisation in 2010, he said that in most cases the issue of citizenship was brought up by people with no good intentions.

He said that “it doesn’t make any sense to threaten to revoke one’s citizenship merely because you don’t agree with them on certain things.”

“In my case it was very clear,” said Ulimwengu, “that rulers wanted me to behave myself and once they thought I did, the president told his people to grant me the citizenship.”

In 2010 towards the General Election, the ruling CCM’s Central Committee (CC) removed the now Nzega MP Hussein Bashe from the race over ambiguity on his citizenship.

Mr Bashe had contested in the primaries in the constituency and defeated Mr Lucas Selelii who was trying to retain the constituency. The government later declared Mr Bashe a legal citizen and in 2015 elections became Nzega Urban MP.

In 2014, the advocate of High Court of Tanzania, advocate Albert Msando was interrogated by the Immigration officers from Kilimanjaro over his nationality.

Msando was interrogated while he was defending the Kigoma Urban Member of Parliament Mr Zitto Kabwe in court in a case against Chama Cha Demokrasia Na Maendeleo (Chadema).

Show me my nation

Mr Olengurumwa appeals to the government to show him his nationality if they think he’s not Tanzanian.

“I am a Tanzanian. I was born in Tanzania. My parents, too, were born in Tanzania. They served in the government after they had fought for the independence of this nation,” he points out.