Tanzania’s elections slated for October 2020 would have been for the incumbent John Pombe Magufuli to lose without a formidable opposition challenging his second term bid. That has however changed with the return of opposition politician Tundu Antipas Lissu after three years exile in Belgium following a failed assassination attempt in September 2017.

His arrival on Monday (27th July 2020) saw hundreds throng the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam waving Tanzanian and CHADEMA flags in what is widely viewed as a sign of a thriving opposition in the country. Lissu underwent several surgeries abroad after being shot 16 times in Dodoma, forcing him to be evacuated to Nairobi in neighbouring Kenya where he received treatment for weeks before being flown to Belgium for further procedures.

Coincidentally, Lissu is returning to the country at a time when Tanzanians are mourning the death of their third president Benjamin Mkapa, a president whom his criticism of propelled him to national fame and eventually won him a parliamentary seat in 2010, representing Singida East Constituency. He has also previously served as President of Tanganyika Law Society, the bar association of Tanzania mainland, and Chief Legal Officer for Tanzanian opposition party CHADEMA.

Harsh Critic

The opposition politician is known for his harsh criticism of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) led government of President Magufuli. Then an MP, Lisssu took issue with the government’s high handedness which included attacks on the press and opposition politicians through intimidation by state officials and arbitrary arrests. Before the attempt on his life, Lissu had been arrested eight times during the current administration with the latest one being two weeks before he was shot. Despite the president ordering investigations into the attempted assassination of the  CHADEMA MP, no one has been arrested three years down the line.

Other politicians who have faced the wrath of Magufuli’s authoritarian regime include Party Leader of Alliance for Change & Transparency Wazalendo (ACT Wazalendo), Zitto Kabwe and CHADEMA Party Leader Freeman Mbowe among others.

Not even a week into his arrival, Lissu is on Thursday (30th July 2020) expected to appear in court in criminal case number 123/2017 in which he is charged with sedition.

The Face-Off

Supporters of Magufuli who was really popular at the onset of his tenure count on the infrastructural developments in Tanzania which include roads and bridges constructed using loans from China, as evidence of his performance. A refurbished international airport in Dar es Salaam, a standard gauge railway from the port city to Morogoro in inland Tanzania, a dam that’s not yet finished that’s being built in the Selous National Park and a revival of Air Tanzania with the purchase of planes from Boeing and Bombardier are some the development projects that CCM and their supporters are using to drum up an endorsement for the incumbent.

On the other hand, opposition politicians and human rights activists are opposed to Magufuli’s second term bid citing the deteriorating state of basic freedoms and the closure of democratic space in Tanzania. Magufuli’s incessant attacks on press freedoms, arrests of opposition politicians and stifling of civil society have come under sharp criticism in the recent past. As recent as last month, opposition politician Zitto Kabwe was arrested and detained for ‘holding an illegal political meeting.  Newspapers such as The Citizen, Mwananchi, and Tanzania Daima have borne the brunt of his administration’s upfront on a free press.  ‘Opposition politicians have also taken issue with Magufuli’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing him of failing to inform the public on its true extent. Authorities have not updated the country’s official number of COVID-19 infections in three months, while Magufuli has declared the disease defeated.

Magufuli’s administration is also being accused of impunity by destroying the independence of the judiciary and parliament through influencing malicious prosecution of opposition politicians, imposing a ban on live-broadcast of parliamentary proceedings and introduction of unconstitutional laws.

Compromised elections 

Opposition politicians in Tanzania have also taken issue with the composition of the electoral body ahead of the October polls. They accuse the president and his CCM party for appointing party members as commissioners of the electoral commission expected to oversee the coming elections. The president has however maintained that the coming elections will be free and fair.

While Lissu is hoping to be selected by Chadema to face-off with Magufuli in two months, there are talks of the opposition mulling over the idea of fielding one candidate to go against the incumbent. Bernard Membe, a former foreign affairs minister who recently joined ACT Wazalendo is also interested in the top seat.