Updated: February 25, 2021
Authorities in Tanzania killed at least four people and carried out other serious abuses that marred the national elections in late October and early November 2020, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. They should investigate these abuses, end the harassment of journalists and opposition politicians, and cancel the media restrictions that began before election day.
After election campaigns started in August, the police arbitrarily arrested and detained scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. In the weeks ahead of the elections, the authorities suspended television and radio stations, censored mobile phone communication, and blocked social media. On the eve of elections, police fired live ammunition into crowds on the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar, killing at least three people.
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“The Tanzanian government crackdown on the opposition and the press during the electoral campaign undermined the credibility of the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to credibly investigate election-related abuses and end continuing repressive practices now.”
Elections on mainland Tanzania took place on October 28, and in Zanzibar on October 27 and 28. On October 30, the National Electoral Commission announced that President John Magufuli of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party had won with 84 percent of the vote ahead of his closest challenger, Tundu Lissu of the opposition, Chadema party.
Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with 16 people between October 15 and November 9, including journalists, party officials, and family members of people allegedly killed by police.
Human Rights Watch documented the arrests of at least 18 opposition party officials, leaders, and supporters, including Lissu and another presidential candidate, Seif Sharif Hamad of the ACT Wazalendo party, ahead of, and after the elections. The Chadema party reported that up to 300 of its members were arrested across the country during this period.
Human Rights Watch found that police killed at least three people and injured scores of others on the night before the elections in Zanzibar. In a November 10 statement, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for investigations into allegations that at least 10 people were killed in Zanzibar in the two days leading up to the elections. On November 11, the inspector general of police, Simon Sirro, told the media that only two people died as a result of “sporadic violence” on October 26, and that a third, a soldier, was killed by opposition supporters on October 28, but did not address allegations of police involvement.
Catherine Ruge, a Chadema parliamentary candidate, told Human Rights Watch that police arrested and beat her and several of her colleagues at an election campaigns coordination office in the northern Serengeti district on October 12. A policeman later sexually assaulted her, touching her inappropriately at a police station, she said. She said that one of the officers, whom she recognized, threatened to kill her, telling her, “This election will not end before I kill you.” Two days later, Sirro, the police inspector general, told the media that police would investigate Ruge’s allegations.
In Zanzibar, government security forces and a government-aligned militia group known as the “Mazombi,” or “Zombies,” harassed and beat people prior to and since the elections. Three people on Pemba island said that during this time security forces regularly harassed residents, brandishing guns and chasing them away from public spaces.
In the lead-up to the elections, the media regulator, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA), suspended media outlets for election-related coverage and placed restrictions on online content critical of the government. A journalist in Unguja, Zanzibar, told Human Rights Watch that on October 29, police briefly detained her and two colleagues at a police station as they sought to cover a street demonstration against the local election results organized by ACT Wazalendo.
Since President Magufuli took office in 2015, the authorities have increasingly cracked down on the media and civil society groups by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to withdraw the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government also placed restrictions on the political opposition and gave the registrar of political parties’ wide discretionary powers, including to withdraw registration from parties.
The Tanzanian authorities should take prompt, credible, and impartial steps to investigate the allegations of election-related killings, beatings and assaults by security forces, and hold those responsible accountable, Human Rights Watch said. The government should urgently review repressive legislation and policies and ensure protection for the rights of all as guaranteed under international and regional human rights law including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
“The Tanzanian government’s dramatic decline in respect for free expression, association and peaceful assembly was worryingly obvious during the elections,” Nyeko said. “The Magufuli government should take concrete steps to improve respect for human rights for all.”