Last week, I co-hosted a 5-hour marathon discussion on ‘Wanazuoni Club’ at the Clubhouse about the new constitution for Tanzania. We had speakers who provided diverse perspectives on the subject, historical, legal, humanistic, political, and economical. We even invited speakers who can best be termed as ‘new constitution deniers’ to share their perspectives, too.
One of the arguments that resonated with many was about the legality and the legitimacy of the current constitution. Quoting Prof Issa Shivji, one of the speakers argued that while the current constitution may be legal, it is not legitimate, that is, it didn’t originate from the people. By that he meant that some people were appointed by founder-President Julius Nyerere to draft a constitution - and probably gave him what he expected. And, that’s what became Tanzania’s constitution!
In effect, that’s more or less all that has happened in Tanzania since independence. People have never been consulted for their views and ultimately no referendum has been done for them to approve any constitution. Tanzania Constitutional Review Commission of 2013 proposed to correct that, but unfortunately, politicians short-circuited the process.
As a result, Tanzanians don’t understand what is in the current constitution. They don’t have a sense of ownership, and don’t feel the need to protect it. Ultimately, those in power can break the constitution with impunity. I think that this is a very eloquent description of why Tanzania needs a new constitution.
One ‘constitution denier’ later challenged me personally why I felt that Tanzania needs a new constitution. I think one of the most urgent needs is to separate and balance powers between the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative branches of the state. This is the foundational principle of good governance without which you don’t have any accountability in leadership.
Currently, the executive, especially the president, is dangerously powerful. The five years of Magufuli’s presidency showed us how risky that can be: the image of Mr Nape Nnauye facing a gun barrel in broad daylight usually sends chills down my spine. When ministers can be threatened with deadly force to remain silent, who can dare speak?
As a democratic republic, authority to govern is derived from the law. However, when abuses can be excused by saying ‘I’m following orders’ – this brings into question the whole system of government. If the law isn’t the supreme authority from which all power is derived, then what do we have? Looking back at Magufuli’s reign, it’s difficult to imagine a person with more absolute powers than he had.
Many of us might agree on these principles, but the problem is how to break the current deadlock. The issue has become a tug of war between CCM and Chadema – if Chadema champions the new constitution process, the process becomes inevitably politicised, but if they don’t, CCM won’t reform a system that benefits it greatly. That’s why even today, under President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s regime, opposition leaders are being harassed in Mwanza to stop them from demanding a new constitution.
The government’s hand needs to be forced.
So, how do you resolve that conundrum?
During the discussion, several arguments were presented to address that challenge. I feel that they were too passive and were all dependent on the CCM’s goodwill. That will never work. I would like to suggest one approach which didn’t come up during the discussion – using faith leaders.
The use of faith leaders as agents of political change is well documented in history. Many examples can be given, but students of history may appreciate the role that Leo, the Bishop of Rome, played in saving the city of Rome from being sacked three times in the 5th century (by cutting deals with invaders). Leo’s exemplary leadership highlights how powerful men of faith can be when acting with integrity apart from politics.
In Tanzania, we have organisations such as TEC, CCT, CPCT, and Bakwata that represent millions with diverse backgrounds and interests. These organisations provide the nation with another layer of leadership that can be appealed to in times of crises. This is by no means an innovation – often these leaders have weighed in on matters of national importance, giving a voice to independent opinions that needed to be heard. When people were dying of coronavirus earlier this year, theirs were the only voices that stood against the Magufuli’s policy of covid-denialism.
In 2016, as the nation was bracing itself for UKUTA demonstrations, some faith leaders went to the state house to plead the people’s case for peaceful demonstrations. The powers that were refused. Instead of openly calling out for the constitution to be respected, those leaders went to the opposition and the opposition relented. However, by rewarding misrule, I believe that this is the point Tanzania became a qualified police state.
Faith leaders need to learn from that experience. TEC, CCT, CPCT and Bakwata need to speak out on the new constitution issue. This needs to be a corporate decision - not to be left to individuals such as Bishop Bagonza, Bishop Niwemugizi, or Bishop Kakobe. Just as faith leaders corporately disciplined DRC’s President Joseph Kabila in his interference in the 2018 election, I think these leaders have the power to make the government reconsider its path.
The people’s constitution isn’t a favour that leaders bestow on people. If current leaders can’t transcend their political interests, it’s time they were ‘persuaded’ to do so.