Image Credit: The White House
Tanzania, a nation better known for being the home to the mighty Kilimanjaro and the serene Serengeti, rarely makes the news for its politics. However, a United States travel ban on one of its most prominent politician and its inclusion among the countries whose citizens will be denied certain visas to enter the US has made the news.
Paul Makonda, a key government official and ally of President John Magufuli has been banned from entering the United States in response to his involvement in what the US called “gross human rights violations”. Makonda holds the position of Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, the largest city of Tanzania. As the administrative head of Tanzania’s largest city, his role could be equated to that of the Mayor of London or a US state governor.
Tanzania was also among the six countries included in President Donald Trump’s latest round of travel bans. Citizens of these countries will not be considered for certain visas for failing to meet US security and information-sharing standards. This list of country is an extension to the seven, mostly Muslim countries blacklisted in the much-publicised ban in 2017.
In its statement, the US Department of State also accused him of “the targeting of marginalized individuals.” In his capacity as the Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Makonda has actively led an assault on the rights of the city’s gay community. In 2018, Makonda announced a surveillance taskforce with the aim to identify and punish homesexuals in Dar es Salaam. He urged the public to contribute by reporting gay people to the authorities.
Whilst LGBT rights in Tanzania has traditionally been non-existent with homosexual sex punishable by law, the aggressive measures taken by Makonda are still unprecedented. Makonda’s measures are reflective of the rising intolerance to dissent and heightened limitation of freedoms since President Magufuli came to power in 2015. Nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his hard-nosed decision making, Magufuli has presided over a series of measures restricting freedom of press, freedom of expression and human rights.
Since his election, the political environment has turned hostile for opposition parties. Tundu Lissu, a Member of Parliament and a fierce government critic was shot by unidentified gunmen in 2017. Two other officials of an opposition party were also killed in 2018. In both cases, no arrests were made.
In 2019, an amendment to the Political Parties Act gave sweeping powers to a government regulator over registration, funding and membership of political parties. It was widely denounced by the opposition as hastening Tanzania’s descent into a “one-party state”. According to Amnesty International, the law gives arbitrary powers to the government-appointed Registrar of Political Parties as it can demand any information from parties. If parties do not comply, they will face heavy fines.
As with any authoritarian regime, the press has also been a target of Magufuli’s government. The president has banned several newspapers deemed critical of the government. A prominent journalist, Erick Kabendera, was also detained in July for charges including money laundering and tax evasion. The move has been widely seen as politically motivated, with Amnesty International calling it “an assault on press freedom”.
In its 2019 report ‘Tanzania: The price we pay: Targeted for dissent by the Tanzanian State’, Amnesty International documents the restrictions on these fundamental freedoms. In it, it shows how the 2016 Media Services Act has been used to clamp down on opposition. In 2017,four newspapers are shown to have been banned from publishing. One of them was Raia Mwema, which was banned for the publication of an article titled “John Magufuli shall fail as President”.
For years, Tanzania had stood out for its political tolerance in Sub-Saharan Africa, a region otherwise mainly populated by countries such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the perennially volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, as Magufuli’s government hounds political rivals, the press and the LGBT community that looks likely to change.