Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
This is an abridged version of a discussion with Zitto Kabwe, the party leader of one Tanzania’s main opposition parties, the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), and a former Member of Parliament. In our wide-ranging conversation, we discussed his political rise, Tanzania’s 2020 general election, the current state of the country’s opposition, the political legacy of Julius Nyerere, and the role of youth in African politics.
Since conducting this interview with Zitto Kabwe in December 2020, Tanzania has been rocked by the deaths of two of its most prominent politicians. In February 2021, the Vice President of Zanzibar and a senior member of ACT-Wazalendo, Seif Sharif Hamad, died. His death occurred just weeks after Hamad had confirmed his positive Covid-19 status. This event significantly undermined the declaration made by the country’s then president, John Pombe Magufuli, that Tanzania was “Covid-19 free” in June 2020. Magufuli’s government had not shared new Covid-19 case figures since April 2020. Last week, Magufuli himself died, officially from a “heart condition”, though amid rumours that he too had contracted Covid-19. On 19 March, Magufuli’s successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in. We have decided to publish this interview, as it provides, among other things, important context for analysing opposition politics in Tanzania in the post-Magufuli era.
Luke Melchiorre (LM): I wanted to start by asking about your political career. You had a fairly remarkable rise. You were elected as a Member of Parliament in your constituency of Kigoma at the tender age of 29 in 2005 and fairly early on you were appointed to parliamentary positions of great responsibility. I am curious: What made you want to enter politics? What were your formative political influences?
Zitto Kabwe (ZK): I joined a political party at the age of 16, at the height of the movement for multiparty democracy in the country. Because Tanzania was a single-party country from 1965 all the way to 1992. By the time I joined the university, I was already a party activist [for one of Tanzania’s leading opposition parties Chadema]…working at the party’s headquarters as a research officer. I go[t] into party hierarchy to become the Head of Foreign Relations for the Party… So, all that, by the time I was elected to parliament, I had already been exposed to party positions… It was seen as a rapid rise, but because I was already a senior party leader at a young age.
LM: And why do you think you had acquired such political responsibility and had such electoral success at a very young age?
ZK: First of all, as I said, Kigoma was already an opposition area. It was easier to organize and win. But secondly, I participated a lot in civil society movements in the country. In the university, I was a student leader.
LM: In 2015, you decided to leave Chadema, which at that point was a centre-right party to join a new political party; ACT-Wazalendo. Why did you make those decisions? Why leave Chadema and join a new party at that point in your career?
ZK: In 2006, there were constitutional changes within Chadema to bring the party to the centre, rather than being very centre-right… There was some sort of ideological struggle within the party over the direction of the party. So, in 2006, we managed to bring the party into the centre. By 2009, there was already a faction within the party that wanted a further left-wing orientation. And I was the leader of that faction. So, [that faction] pushed me to run for the Chairperson for the party… When I am asked what political mistakes have you made in your life, this was one of the mistakes that I say I have made. It was too quick. Because I was very young… I should have waited. But I ran. And that created tension [in the party] that did not stop. So, after the 2010 [national] elections…it was clearly seen that I would contest [for the Chairmanship again] in 2014. So the tension within the party continued… Then in November 2014, I was literally expelled from the party. But already we had seen the eventuality would be for me to be expelled. So, we started the formation of [ACT-Wazalendo] in 2014. By the time of my expulsion, I had a vehicle to continue with my political activities and that’s why I joined ACT.
LM: How would you describe the politics or ideological commitments of ACT? What are the party’s main aims and where does it fit within Tanzania’s broader political landscape?
ZK: When we decided to form a new party, we wanted to fill the ideological void that had existed [on the left of Tanzania’s political spectrum]. Because as you know [Chama Cha Mapinduzi] CCM…was a socialist party. Yet the government of CCM implements neoliberal policies. Since 1995, after Benjamin Mkapa became President, and then later Jacob Kikwete were both for free market, private sector development, and trade liberalization. For us, we saw that there is an ideological void in the country [on the left]. That is why our party pronounced the remaking of the Arusha Declaration [Julius Nyerere’s landmark 1967 document, which explicitly committed his regime to socialist policies, like nationalization and rural collectivisation]. We developed a party document out of the meeting that we had in the town called Tabora and we called it the Tabora Declaration, as the rebirth of the Arusha Declaration. But of course, a modernized Arusha Declaration, whereby the party stands for public ownership in strategic sectors and not in all means of production, as it used to be with the Arusha Declaration. Rather than having a free market economy, having a fair market economy. And also, reestablishing the original Tanzanian foreign policy, in favour of the people who are oppressed around the world. That is why you see our position is in strong support of Western Sahara independence and very strong support of the Palestinian cause.
While we formed a party to fill a political void [on the left], this has become very challenging because, by March 2019, we received membership of the party from Zanzibar former CUF [Civic United Front] members, under the leadership of Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad [as noted, Hamad died in February of 2021, over two months after this interview had been conducted] who were liberals. So, we are actually in the process of redefining the ideological position of the party to make sure that the Zanzibar factor is taken into consideration. Definitely the obvious solution will be moving [ACT] to the centre, so that we will care for the left and also for the liberals within the party.
LM: At the party’s beginnings, as you mentioned, you wanted to revive the democratic socialism of Tanzania’s founding father, Julius Nyerere, and to, as you put it, “modernize” it. Can you explain what Ujamaa means to you? And are those still the objectives of the party, given the developments that you just talked about in terms of your membership from Zanzibar?
ZK:Yes. So, for me, personally, and for most of the members [of ACT], Ujamaa is about justice and lack of inequality and making sure that the wealth of the nation benefits the majority and ends the inequality which is created by the capitalist system.
LM: I wanted to now turn to a discussion of the recent election. In October of this year, in an election that has widely been viewed, both in Tanzania and internationally, as fraudulent, opposition parties in Tanzania were only able to win, from one of the estimates that I read, 3 out of 264 directly elected constituencies. The ruling party, CCM, saw their share of legislative constituency seats increase from 73% to 99%. Magufuli’s share of the popular vote supposedly increased from 58% in 2015 to 84% and opposition candidates (including yourself) lost seats in constituencies that had previously been opposition strongholds. How do you explain these improbable, irregular results?
ZK: There were no elections. There was no election at all. It was a military operation to bring the country back to single-party rule. This is the conclusion that every single, objective political analyst in Tanzania will say. And I think we have already read a lot about the evidence that we collected on the ballot-stuffing, on the pre-marked ballot papers that were brought into the polling station, and even just declaration of results without tallying. So, from our point of view, there was no election and that is why you have the results that you have. It was impossible even a day before the election to comprehend that CCM could win in a city like Kigoma, Kigoma Urban. It was unthinkable that a leader of the opposition, Freedom Mbowe, in Hai constituency, can lose his seat to an unknown person in CCM. We don’t say that the opposition won 3 seats, 2 seats in the mainland out of 214. We say that the opposition was given two seats, just to show that there are elements of the opposition in parliament. But in reality, there was no election.
LM: You told The East African in the November 2018 that the Tanzanian opposition was in “shambles”. How would you describe it today post-election?
ZK: It is dead.
LM: Do you want to elaborate on that anymore?
ZK: I said [in 2018] that the Tanzanian opposition is in shambles, because of the measures that Magufuli took and the reaction that [the opposition] took then. That shambolic situation continued. We tried to reorganize ourselves, to re-energize and with a candidate like Tundu Lissu, the base was highly energized. But post-election, maybe saying [the opposition is] dead is too much, it was too extreme, I should say it’s on its deathbed, in the ICU. It can be brought back; we are going to have to work hard on that. And a lot of work has to be done to ensure that we come back and refocus our work and work outside the formal structures. Because between 2016 and 2020, [the opposition] had [elected representatives in] forums, like parliament and municipalities. But now we do not have a single local government authority that is under the opposition. We have a very, very small number of [opposition] members in parliament. So, it means we do not have a forum to channel the grievances. That requires a lot of work. Working from outside the formal structures.
LM: I want to think more broadly now, about how your politics and the politics of ACT relates to politics beyond Tanzania. 2020 has obviously been a tumultuous year. In East Africa, for example, we have witnessed Ethiopia descend into civil war; in Uganda, the political campaigns of opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, have been met by brutal state violence; and, of course, as we mentioned, in Tanzania, the recent election saw a level of government repression against the opposition which is without precedent in the country’s history. How do you understand these developments in relation to one another?
ZK:I think the dictators learn from each other. And they profit from these situations. What happened in Tanzania [in the 2015 and 2020 elections] is feeding into what is going on in Uganda now. Because Magufuli hasn’t faced consequences to the moment regarding the stolen election, or the so-called election. So, Museveni is having a free[r] hand. He is following the same pages that Magufuli used. So, they are learning from each other… I hope you read an article in The Economist…about the export of the Chinese model into the world and how effective it is in Africa. That’s what I see. The authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party being seen as a model for development by a lot of ruling parties in Africa. We are going back to the era of the 1970s [and] the 80s, with the dictatorial regimes being part of Africa [again].
LM: In recent years, across the continent, we have seen generational tensions becoming increasingly politicized in countries, like South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria. In Tanzania, where the median age of the population is just 18. How important were such generational cleavages in the country’s last election? How, if at all, have they manifested themselves?
ZK: Actually, very interestingly, the young people in Tanzania shunned the election completely. A lot of young people did not even bother to vote [in the recent election]. For us, it is evidence that young people in Tanzania either do not trust the political system or see the politics as a process that doesn’t have any meaning to their lives. Or they made the conclusion that why bother voting when the winner is already known. So, it is different from Uganda, where you see a lot of young people in the streets, demanding changes, democratic changes in the country… But in Tanzania, you see the young people are shunning politics. Seeing politics as something that is not of their concern, which is a worrying trend and something that has to be worked around, in order to make sure that they have an interest.
LM: And how do you explain the difference between Uganda and Tanzania in that regard? Why do we see a mobilized youth population in Uganda electorally, and not in Tanzania?
ZK: I think Uganda, first of all, it has a history of defiance. Museveni came to power as a rebel. A history of people going to the bush and fighting for change. Tanzania does not have that history. Secondly, Uganda has seen Museveni and his repressive regime for three decades. While in Tanzania, we are experiencing a kind of repression like that of Uganda, [only] over the last five years. So, I am sure the continued repression might make young people get more involved into the civic activism in order to bring change.
LM: The French anthropologist, Marie-Aude Fouéré has argued that Mwalimu remains “a political metaphor for debating and acting upon the present” in contemporary Tanzanian politics. In the most recent election, Magufuli has emphasized his developmental achievements, claiming that he is “following in Nyerere’s footsteps”, while the opposition leader Tundu Lissu has been more critical, blaming Nyerere for creating an “imperial presidency”. Where do you stand on Nyerere and his political project today? What do you see as being his ultimate legacies for contemporary Tanzanian politics?
ZK: Mwalimu Nyerere’s legacy is on the stability of the country and the unity of the country. Mwalimu Nyerere was not very good on the economic front, but he built a nation. And I always give this example of the difference between building a country and building a nation. Building a country involves the bridges, the grids, and whatever, the roads and everything. Building a nation is having a kind of society that we aspire to have, and Nyerere had that. The stability that we see so far is the legacy that Nyerere had on our country. So, when Magufuli compares himself to Nyerere, I always laugh. Because it is a contrast: Nyerere was a philosopher king. He had a vision of building a nation. Magufuli is, as he has famously been called, a bulldozer. His vision is roads, rail, power stations, and the like. And not about nation-building. Nation-building is on the social side; on the education of the people, the health of the people, on the ethics of the nation, the values that define a nation, and [Magufuli] has no interest in that.
LM: Now, Nyerere passed away in 1999, which means that there were Tanzanians who voted in the most recent election, who were born after Nyerere died. In your experience with your party and on the campaign trail, do you believe his political ideas still resonate with the youth of Tanzania?
ZK: Yeah, in a way. Sometimes the ideas of Nyerere resonate with the old[er] generation rather than the [young] people, who are the majority now. And from my experience during the campaign, I didn’t see th[e] resona[nce] [of Nyerere’s message] at all [with Tanzanian youth]. Although the ruling party tries to use Nyerere to satisfy themselves, rather than to make sure that the majority of people understand [Nyerere’s ideas]. Although, this generation of young people who did not see Nyerere, did not see the dark side of Nyerere’s regime: the repression…[and] the economic hardship that took place during that time. These people have only the positive side of Nyerere. We have to appreciate that. That there is something of a positive vibe when you mention Nyerere, about the ethical leadership, about building the nation, about peaceful nation, and something like that. But the resona[nce] is not that big. You cannot win an election on the manifesto built by Nyerere, no.
LM: Zitto, it has been a pleasure to speak with you again. I just have a couple more questions. 2020 has also been a year that has witnessed a wave of popular protest across the world. On the continent, from Nigeria, to Sudan, to Uganda, and beyond, young people seem to be at the forefront of a number of these political movements. Is there something special or unique about this present historical moment? And if so, what do you think the defining characteristics of this moment are?
ZK: The changes in Sudan, the protests in Nigeria, were being seen from Tanzania…they inspired the people, but as I said before, still because of the political history of this country, Tanzanians are not yet able to do what other countries are doing. Nobody expected that today, as we are speaking, Omar Bashir would be in custody. Nobody would have thought that. When the demonstrations started in Nigeria, nobody expected that it would have such huge impacts, that the president would disband the SARS and the like. So, this is seen, from the Tanzanian perspective, as inspirational. But it hasn’t really had an impact in terms of behaviour change of Tanzanians. But we are observing, and we are seeing.
LM: But do you think we are in a unique historical moment, now? Do you think we are entering a new moment in Africa and, perhaps, beyond?
ZK: I can’t say so… If you compare these [developments] to the 1990s, sovereign conferences [in Africa] that brought in multiparty democracy, starting in Benin, during Matthieu Kérékou’s regime, all the way to Zaire under Mobutu. That was the moment of the second wave of change…after independence…that saw democratic changes of governments in Zambia, in Malawi, [and] in Benin. But [developments today] are not spreading as a coordinated historical event… Because look after Sudan, what happened? We only see war in Ethiopia. The peace process in South Sudan is not taking place. But we saw the changes in Algeria, then a coup in Mali. So, you cannot even define what is going on in Africa [today].