On Tanzania, Obama is getting it wrong – By Sarah Hermitage


Jakaya Kikwete: international respect seems to bely an administration that is increasingly intolerant of domestic dissent.

In September President Kikwete of Tanzania was among ten African leaders to attend a meeting in New York organised by President Obama for heads of state and civil society organisations committed to promoting good governance. The meeting also called for the scrapping of regulations which hinder the performance of civil society in improving transparency, accountability and “˜good governance’.

In his opening speech Obama showered Kikwete with praise – referring to him as “a true brother and a friend” for his efforts promoting transparency and good governance in Tanzania – this being one of the few countries in the world to have signed a charter on government that strives towards transparency and good governance.

These comments reiterate those bestowed on Kikwete during Obama’s visit to Tanzania in July 2013, where he met with business leaders to discuss investment, trade and economic growth. Obama again commended Kikwete for his “˜good and transparent governance’, noting that civil society groups and journalists were doing their part to advance democracy and prosperity in the country.

Obama stated that he had confidence in Kikwete’s government and that Tanzania had the potential to unlock new economic growth across the East Africa region. However, he failed to acknowledge that, despite the high levels of growth in Tanzania over recent years, this has not resulted in a decrease in poverty..

The United States, which in 2012 gave Tanzania more than $480 million in aid, is vocal about its commitment to stand with people and governments that aspire to freedom and democracy. To this end, the US produces annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the Secretary of State’s preface to the 2012 report, John Kerry writes how valuable the reports are to the US State Department and federal agencies which direct US foreign policy, as well as members of Congress, the academic community, activists, students, journalists, lawyers, judges, foreign governments, and concerned citizens everywhere.

The heart of good governance is indeed transparency, a free press and the objective application of the rule of law – all the things Obama commends about Tanzania’s current governance regime. However, had Obama done his homework he would have found that the country remains riddled with corruption, state-led brutality and a draconian approach to press freedom that should not attract the support and confidence of the President of the United States.

The 2012 Human Rights Report for Tanzania states that the three most widespread and systemic human rights problems in the country were excessive use of force by security forces resulting in deaths and injuries, restrictions on political expression and a lack of access to justice. A special report by Tom Rhodes – The invisible plight of the Tanzanian Press – Nairobi consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), states that whilst the Tanzanian government enjoys good international publicity for transparency, domestic discontent is simply not being picked up. Rhodes outlines how the CPJ has documented 10 serious anti-press attacks and threats since September 2012, which he states is a notable jump over historical trends in the country. He describes one of the attacks on an editor of the outspoken newspaper the Tanzania Daima, Absalom Kibanda;

“It took all of five minutes for two assailants to carry out the horrific attack on the editor lopping off the top of his right ring finger, piercing his left eye, and prying out several teeth and fingernails. Kabana’s cell phone and national identity card were taken, but his cash-filled wallet and iPad were left behind, signs the March assault was motivated by something other than robbery”

This attack followed the unspeakable murder of veteran cameraman and journalist Daudi Mwangosi in September 2012, who was killed covering an opposition rally in a rural area outside Iringa. Police fired a tear gas canister at him at close range and continued to beat his body to a pulp in the dirt.

Despite very clear video evidence of the attack, no officer has yet been convicted of Mwangosi’s murder. Unsurprising perhaps given the recent statements by Kikwete’s close friend Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, who declared in a Parliamentary question time that it was his government’s policy to beat, beat and beat again, trouble makers in the country.

On any level, this was an extraordinary and serious statement by Pinda, particularly given the increase in violence and extra-judicial killings taking place in Tanzania. More extraordinary is the fact that Kikwete ignored the incident and Pinda remains in office.  Pinda’s actions and Kikwete’s inaction send a powerful message of impunity to the brutal, corrupt and unaccountable police and security services in Tanzania and invoke fear in those that seek to promote human rights in the country.

This is evidenced by last month’s suspension of two of Tanzania’s more respected newspapers; the Swahili dailies Mwananchi and MTanzania, which were banned by the government for 14 and 90 days respectively on accusations of sedition. In his article A step backwards on the road to democracy, blogger Ben Taylor gives an excellent account of the circumstances of the bans, which the Tanzanian government said were in response to the papers’ “practice of writing news and features that are inflammatory and hostile with the intention of causing citizens to lose confidence in state organs, and as such putting the country’s peace and cohesion in danger.” Both papers have, in the past, taken a critical stance towards government policy; each receiving a number of warnings.

As Taylor points out, at a time when lucrative gas and mining contracts are being negotiated in Tanzania, when Chinese investment is pouring into the country and when Tanzania’s politics are more competitive than ever before, the country desperately needs a media that is not afraid to speak up.

Tanzania’s reputation as an island of relative peace, democracy and good governance is becoming harder and harder to justify. The reality, argues Willibrod Slaa, Secretary General of the opposition “˜Chadema’ party, is that whilst the international community believes there is peace in Tanzania, in reality “There is fear, not peace.”

In a recent press release, Article 19 (a media NGO which promotes freedom of speech and expression) states:

“Attacking media freedom is to attack the very bedrock of democracy. This is deeply troubling at a time when Tanzania is drafting a new constitution. The new Constitution must protect freedom of expression. Depriving people of vital information at such a defining moment in the country’s history denies them the opportunity to fully participate in shaping their own future”.

The two bans come 14 months after the government issued an indefinite ban on the publication of another newspaper Mwanahalisi under section 25(1) of the 1976 Newspaper Act.

So much for Kikwete’s signing of the good governance Charter for which he was praised by Obama.

It seems unlikely that the US State Department is not aware of the reports detailing the serious and deteriorating situation in respect of human rights in the country, or the contents of its own Human Rights Report. Tanzania has failed absolutely to strengthen a rules based international order with institutions such as the police and judiciary being continually voted amongst the most corrupt in East Africa.

Good governance, civil society and the institutions that support it take decades to build. They are not aided by Western governments showering praise and aid on overtly brutal, corrupt and ineffective governments.

If the Obama administration is, as it says, committed to protecting human rights and supporting multilateral institutions around the world, why is it so vocally committed to Kikwete’s poor governance? A clue may be in his closing press conference where he stated “African consumers are spending more and creating new markets where we can all sell our goods…more growth and opportunity in Africa can mean more growth and opportunity in the United States.”

Sarah Hermitage is a British Lawyer and anti-corruption activist.

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3 thoughts on “On Tanzania, Obama is getting it wrong – By Sarah Hermitage

  1. Bravo to Sarah Hermitage for clearly and factually reporting the status of human right freedoms in Tanzania. Those of us with an ear to the ground in Tanzania, have watched the deteriorating conditions in that country ignored and overlooked by the international press for the past eight years. The disemboweling of a television journalist and the torture of the head of a national doctors union, striking for better conditions and facilities (Dr. Stephen Ulimboka), are just extreme examples of deteriorating democracy in Tanzania under the current government. It is not the people alone who are imperiled by the lack of good governance in Tanzania but the wildlife and environment as well, at a time that the earth is tipping towards irrevocable imbalance. Tanzania has vast untapped wealth and natural resources, therefore we must insist that President Obama and other world leaders insure that internationally recognized standards of freedom and respect for civil and human rights are upheld as a prerequisite for trade and diplomacy.

  2. Diane Strong, My response is specifically directed to you. Why do you feel that Africa can only progress in human rights if we have western governments reading the riot act African leaders? are you perhaps of the firm belief, like many in the past, that Africans lack their own sense of agency to change their situations? What you fail to realise is a lot of the preaching by western governments about human rights and democracy is extremely hypocritical, particularly when we Africans know that there are many urgent situations in Africa in which the west will neither act nor speak out because it is not in their interests. I think the belief that foreign countries have an inherent right to tell Africans how to manage their affairs should really be left in the past where it belongs. Africa is open for trade, and if the west is not willing because of ‘misgivings’ then others will take its place, and about time too! If anything, western interference, including by western NGO’s have often served to stifle local efforts to improve human rights and governance, too often these foreign governments and NGOs determine the human rights agenda, focusing on matters(like the current fashion of forcing homosexuality on the African human rights agenda) that are not an immediate priority for Africans or worse, making it easier for politicians in African countries to claim that local change agents are minions of western states. Those who are genuinely interested in the welfare of Africans should trade more with Africa. Less dependence on aid will eventually lead to more accountability from our leaders, as demanded by the governed as well as more sovereign space, something that we need more urgently than the rights of men to sleep with men.

  3. Very well said, Mwalinafiki. There is, definitely, a need for urgency and action against the impunity at play here. However, the mindset that this is a problem for the West to fix is backwards and – frankly – has never worked.

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