Authorities in Tanzania have launched a wide-ranging crackdown on opposition parties, days after the country’s controversial leader, John Magufuli, was declared the winner of last week’s contested election.
Police detained Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of the Chadema party, on Monday, along with other senior party officials before planned protests against what the opposition claim was widespread electoral fraud.
Tundu Lissu, another prominent leader, was arrested outside a building housing Western embassies in Dar es Salaam, the largest city, where he had sought protection, and released after a police interrogation
Zitto Kabwe, a third opposition leader, told the guardian that he was in hiding.
“I know they are hunting me down. I don’t know when, but they are after us. It’s a massive crackdown,” he said.
Magufuli, who took power in 2015, won 84% of the vote in the presidential elections on 28 October, increasing his vote share by a substantial margin of 26%. Turnout was about 50%, officials said.
Officials said the opposition were planning violence and are holding Mbowe on terrorism charges, which preclude any possibility of bail.
The opposition want fresh elections and say they have planned only peaceful protests.
About 300 workers and activists from Chadema and the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo) have also been detained or “abducted” in recent days, opposition officials said.
More than half that total has been recorded on the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, and 37 in just two southern districts.
“We will not allow the repressive, illegitimate regime of John Magufuli to deprive us of our right to protest peacefully for the return of democracy to … Tanzania. We will not be deterred … The people’s voice will be heard. We will not relent in our fight to restore democracy in our land,” Lissu and Zitto Kabwe, leaders of the major opposition parties, said in a joint statement.
There is increasing international concern about the election, and the apparent deterioration of democracy in the east African country.
James Duddridge, Britain’s minister for Africa, said he was concerned by widespread allegations of interference and the reports of heavy-handed policing, including the arrest of opposition political leaders.
The US ambassador to Tanzania, Donald J Wright, said the reports of arrests were “extremely concerning”.
Supporters of Lissu said he had been turned away by US diplomats in Dar es Salaam when he sought ‘protection’ at the embassy there during Monday afternoon.
“They told him their ‘hands were tied’,” one supporter said.
Despite sporadic violence in the run-up to the poll and about 10 people being shot dead by police, millions filed into polling stations without incident on Wednesday to cast their votes.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) said last week there was no evidence of irregularities, such as fake ballots, during voting.
However, the opposition published images of what appeared to be thousands of ballot papers and large numbers of returning officers’ statements of results that appeared to have been filled in before the vote. One bag was seized when it fell off a lorry.
Other observers noted allegedly unfair advantages for the incumbent, with the order of names on ballot papers changed to favour the president and ruling party.
Magufuli, whose forthright style has earned him the nickname “the bulldozer”, won praise when he came to power for his high-profile efforts to crack down on corruption and government spending. His brand of populist politics and promises of economic development have gained him a solid support base, especially in Tanzania’s vast rural areas.
But the 61-year-old former chemist has also been accused of mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and growing authoritarianism.
International campaign groups have repeatedly voiced concerns about media freedom in recent months, and the opposition claims the NEC has systematically supported Magafuli and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM) by disqualifying opposition candidates or ordering them to pause campaigning.
Last week, Tanzanians reported nationwide problems accessing social media platforms, including Twitter and WhatsApp in what critics said was a state effort to curb dissent by limiting people’s ability to communicate. Twitter confirmed that it had seen some “throttling” of its platform, while internet blockage monitor NetBlocks observed widespread disruption.
Magafuli appears to have won sufficient support in simultaneous parliamentary elections on the mainland and in Zanzibar to allow a two-term limit to be lifted, raising the possibility of his rule lasting for decades. He has previously denied any intention to change the constitution but analysts fear this has long been a goal.
The election is the fifth in the country of 58 million people since the reintroduction of the multiparty system in 1992, and took place against a background of strong rulers in Africa seeking to hold on to power through managing electoral processes and constitutional change. The CCM is sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-ruling party.