What does democracy mean in Tanzania?

What you need to know:

  • President Samia Suluhu Hassan once again spoke of the lack of an agreed-upon formula or concept of democracy worldwide.

Democracy as a word and as a concept has been around for millennia, but throughout history, it has been a contested concept.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan once again spoke of the lack of an agreed-upon formula or concept of democracy worldwide.

That is, democracy must consider a country’s principles, traditions, morals, and ethics. The president spoke during a meeting of the council of political parties in Dar es Salaam.

It was not the first time the president has pointed to this argument as the country is debating a way forward towards constitutional reforms. What does democracy mean to a country like Tanzania?

Is it about multipartism?

One of the key features of the ‘third wave’ of democracy in many African countries was the return of political parties other than the ruling party to the political landscape.

After gaining political independence, many countries, Tanzania included, opted for single-party rule.

The argument was that many political parties were nothing but tools used to divide the people at a time when unity should be paramount in order to deliver economic development and emancipate themselves from abject poverty.

Only two countries retained multipartism after gaining political independence.

For the countries that did not retain multipartism, they came to be viewed as single-party ‘dictatorships’ even though the quality of leadership in these countries was vastly different from each other.

Even the factors behind the decision to opt for a single-party rule did not exactly mirror each other across the continent.

Was Tanzania more free as a one-party state than it is today as a multiparty state? If democracy is a system of governance that derives its legitimacy from the people, does a one-party state make for a poorer democratic state than a multiparty state?

Is it about elections?

Almost all countries in Africa hold these political rituals called elections.

Rulers and their political opponents have come to view them as one of the key features of democracy. Elections confer legitimacy, or at least the illusion of legitimacy, because it is rare for a general election to be held in Africa where those who lose do not cry foul play.

This legitimacy is critical for those who claim to have won disputed elections.

Multipartism expanded the choices of voters during elections.

The quality of these choices is entirely another matter. In some countries, it has also brought to the surface some of the tensions and fault lines from colonial days.

In this regard, elections have come to be a means of ensuring that a particular group in society has its people at the high table.

It is rare today for any country in Africa not to hold elections for its leaders, except one.

Many more countries on the continent have struggled to hold elections for a range of reasons, from insecurity to bitter political disagreements, which make it more deadly to hold elections than to keep in place a tense political arrangement, at least in the short term.

Some have held elections in some parts of their borders while failing to do so in other parts because the governments are not in charge of the entire country.

In short, even bad elections have come to be viewed as better than none at all, even though some coup leaders in West Africa have used these elections as one of their justifications for toppling their governments.

Were elections during the one-party state in Tanzania not reflective of the whole country? Were they not democratic compared to elections held today in a multiparty setting?

Politicians who crisscross this vast land on political podiums, selling their visions of the future and the reality of the times we live in, offer such opposing views of the health of the country’s democracy.

Some will swear that the country is democratic, while others have a long list of issues that clearly mean the country is a ‘dictatorship’.

Does that mean nothing has changed fundamentally since the days of the one-party state? Each side sees a continuum of its own arguments from the past.

It is unlikely that there will be any consensus soon regarding what democracy means for the country. Perhaps that is democracy in itself.