Multiple death threats, arrests by security officers brandishing pistols, and a late-night race to the airport with a diplomatic escort – opposition leader Tundu Lissu’s experience of Tanzania’s general elections on 28 October differed a tad from the verdict of the East African Community’s observer mission.
It concluded that all political parties were able to campaign freely and ‘the election process was conducted in a credible manner’.
Now staying in the Flemish hinterland of Belgium, Lissu agreed to have a virtual coffee with The Africa Report. A considered yet battle-hardened campaigner, Lissu is a difficult politician for journalists. Where is the Achilles’ heel? You might conclude that Lissu’s flaw is that he is too much of a gentleman for the blood sport of 21st-century politics.
He is firmly in the tradition of Tanzania’s activists: its hosting of freedom fighters for the overthrow of apartheid, its army’s ousting of Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada and the lengthy ideological debates at the University of Dar es Salaam.
So, back in November, what had led to that dash for the airport? It was just days after Tanzania’s electoral commission had announced that President John Pombe Magufuli had won a second term with 84% of the vote, the biggest margin since the advent of multiparty politics in 1995.
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Known as ‘The Bulldozer’ to supporters and opponents alike, Magufuli had lived up to the billing. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party was dominating the arena, as in the era of one-party rule under founding president Julius Nyerere.
‘The election was a gigantic fraud’
The reality, according to Lissu, is that the election was a gigantic fraud, from which opposition candidates were violently or bureaucratically excluded while state security packed the ballot boxes with pre-marked ballots for Magufuli before voting. Many opposition politicians alleged high-level vote stealing but, as presidential candidate for the main opposition party, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, Lissu attracted extra attention. Most of all, his call for mass protests against election fraud riled the security services.
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“I received death threats, some were sent to my wife in these WhatsApp chat groups. She received the message from a particular group which said that the boss has ordered that the intelligence apparatus deal with Mr Lissu and they should not make a mistake this time.”
The “mistake” the message was referring to was when a group of unidentified men shot Lundu 16 times in his parliamentary constituency car park on 7 September 2017. He was airlifted out to Kenya and then to Germany, where he spent more than a year recuperating. He still suffers sharp pain in his legs but is determined to stay in the struggle. Magufuli duly condemned the attack on Lissu, but the perpetrators have never been found.
‘Opposition faced an onslaught from state security’
This year, opposition politicians faced an onslaught from state security that peaked around election time. Lissu takes up the story after the threats: “So I decided to run for dear life. I spent a night with friends and it became clear that actually they were closing in on me. So as not to put my friends in danger, I decided to flee to the German embassy.”
Amid prophecies of calamity, Lissu had returned to Tanzania in July to launch his election campaign. He was zapping around the country, addressing rallies and town hall meetings, while party colleagues organised agents to attend each of the country’s 80,000 polling stations. Then came the shock.
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“On election day, we realised what Magufuli had been planning with his returning officers. All over the country, the polling stations were taken over by the military and anti-riot police. Of our 80,000 polling agents, 57,900 polling agents were completely prevented from getting into polling stations.”
Oddly, none of this appears in the official observer mission reports, but Lissu talks about three meetings with the African Union mission headed by Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan. “The AU observers informed me and my colleagues that they had witnessed terrible things. In one case they went to a polling station before it opened and the ballot boxes were already overflowing with ballots.” The AU is yet to release its official report. Instead, to Lissu’s surprise, AU chairman Cyril Ramaphosa was one of the first leaders to congratulate Magufuli.
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For all that, and his party losing all but two of its seats in parliament, “a luta continua”, insists Lissu. He traces his political roots back to the intense debates of the 1970s. “I’m a child of Ujamaa, of Mwalimu Nyerere’s socialism. What it meant to me personally was to see our village destroyed in 1974 by the government […]. Three quarters of the rural population of Tanzania had their lives turned upside down in the course of three years.”
After reading law at Britain’s University of Warwick, Lissu returned to Tanzania on a political mission. He sees a straight line between the top-down edicts of Ujamaa and Tanzania today. “Nyerere is our secular saint and it is overdue for him to be taken from that pedestal. What this country has suffered for nearly 60 years is an imperial presidency. The presidency is literally above the law.”
That set the stage for today’s politics, says Lissu in a nod to the incumbent. “It’s very easy to point an accusing finger at Magufuli, but let’s be fair to the man. He has not changed a single provision of the constitution and those powers were created by Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere.”
A rapprochement in the cards?
Beyond their public duelling, has Lissu ever had a heart-to-heart conversation with Magufuli?
“I spent five years in parliament with him. And I can tell you the man doesn’t have any skin for criticism. They say a thin skin, Magufuli doesn’t have any skin whatsoever. He takes any criticism very personally. He did that as a member of parliament, as a cabinet minister and now that he is president we have seen what he is.”
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A rapprochement is not on the cards, at least as long as Magufuli is president. How quickly Lissu returns to the fray in Tanzania is another question. There is no sign of this doughty lawyer hanging up his election campaign baseball cap.
Nor will he go easy on Magufuli. “During those first days of his presidency, when everyone was falling over to praise this new Messiah, I said the nation should be mourning, preparing for terrible days ahead. And that’s why perhaps I was shot, because I never let up on him.”
This article originally appeared in the latest print edition of ‘The Africa Report’.