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Tanzania’s president cracks down on critics

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When plain-clothes men were caught on security cameras escorting the Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera from his home in July, his sister feared the worst.

“Many people have been taken in the same way and, until today, we have not heard from them,” Prisca Kabendera said by phone. “These are miracles that he is still alive and we know where he is.”

It took 48 hours for the police to confirm to the family that they had detained Mr Kabendera and longer still for him to see a lawyer, his sister said. Since then the allegations against him have changed at least twice. He remains in detention, charged with money laundering, organised crime and failure to pay tax, accusations that prevent him from getting bail. His case was adjourned for a third time on Friday.

That Ms Kabendera should count herself lucky to be able to visit her brother is a testament to how far the political and security climate in Tanzania, once seen as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, has deteriorated since President John Magufuli took power in 2015.

Mr Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer”, was elected on a promise to attack graft and public mismanagement. He won widespread support during his first months in office for halting salary payments to ghost workers and cancelling dubious government contracts.

Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera arrives at the Kisutu Residents Magistrate Court in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania August 19, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman - RC1314E63E80
Tanzanian investigative journalist Erick Kabendera arrives at the Kisutu Residents Magistrate Court in Dar es Salaam. © Reuters

But he has since spent more time punishing those who question his methods than on pursuing corruption, his critics say, stalling Tanzania’s development.

Investment in the mining sector has all but halted following a two-year tax dispute with Barrick Gold’s Acacia Mining, while the negotiation of an agreement with oil majors including ExxonMobil to develop offshore gas is inching along.

“The restriction of freedoms has been increasing for the last three years and the case of Erick Kabendera is a continuation of that pattern,” said Zitto Kabwe, an opposition MP who was arrested in June and prevented from travelling.

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“[Mr Kabendera] was writing fact but what we know is this government doesn’t like criticism. This government wants to do things and not to be questioned about anything they are saying.”

Mr Kabendera is one of many members of the political, business and media communities to have been detained or gone missing since Mr Magufuli took power.

Journalist Azory Gwanda disappeared in 2017, while last month Leopold Lwabaje, a director at Tanzania’s finance ministry, was found dead weeks after his family said he had been detained by plain-clothes assailants.

The initial police investigation blamed suicide but Mr Kabwe is calling for a parliamentary inquiry, given the circumstances preceding Mr Lwabaje’s death and his important role at the finance ministry where he managed EU-funded projects.

Fatma Karume, president of the Tanzanian bar association, said the justice system was being used to target anyone who challenges Mr Magufuli’s regime.

“For anybody who the government suspects or thinks is against Magufuli . . . the criminal justice system will be used to arrest you and detain you without trial,” Ms Karume said.

The government’s modus operandi is to use charges of financial crimes — such as those levied against Mr Kabendera — because the accused cannot be granted bail, she said. “I could name 50 or 60 people, who have all been put in [prison] under the Magufuli regime for money-laundering.”

Two Acacia Mining executives and one former employee have been held on money laundering charges since October. Acacia declined to comment.

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When Mr Kabendera, a Tanzanian national, was first detained in July, a police spokesperson said his citizenship status was under investigation. The police then told the family that he would be charged with sedition. Later the allegations changed to financial crimes. “It is too obvious that these people just want to keep him in jail,” his sister said.

Hassan Abas, a government spokesperson, declined to comment on Mr Kabendera’s case or any other investigation, citing a desire not to prejudice ongoing judicial processes.

The UK and the US have both criticised the trend towards lengthy pre-trial detentions and shifting charges. But the concern from politicians, activists, donors and investors is not limited to the detentions. Since 2015, Mr Magufuli’s government has also implemented new legislation expanding the remit of the intelligence services and restricting everything from newspapers to the publication of statistics.

The 2015 Cyber Crimes Act gave police officers the right to monitor citizens’ digital communications without judicial approval, while the wide definition of sedition in the 2016 Media Services Act has made it, broadly, illegal to criticise the government in any way.

Mr Magufuli has said publicly that he is monitoring conversations between his ministers. Recordings of private calls between members of his cabinet have been leaked on the internet.

The climate of fear is depressing economic activity, investors said, declining to be identified for fear of recriminations from the state. Foreign direct investment fell to 2 per cent of GDP in 2017 down from about 5 per cent in 2014, according to the World Bank. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped by a fifth in the past 12 months.

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“Clearly [Mr Magufuli] is someone who believes that he has a right to listen to other people’s private conversations and it is completely contrary to our constitution,” said Ms Karume.

John Magafuli’s campaign on dissent

October 2015

John Magufuli becomes Tanzanian president, extending the tenure of his party that has been in power since 1961. Many voters expect him to institute reforms and crack down on corruption

November 2016

Parliament approves the Media Services Act that substantially increases the government’s control of the press

March 2017

The government enters an ongoing dispute with Barrick Gold’s Acacia Mining, one of the biggest foreign investors. Tanzania accuses the company, among other things, of owing the government $190bn in unpaid taxes and penalties.

September 2017

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu is attacked in what he says was an assassination attempt. He later accused Mr Magufuli for trying to turn “the country into a dictatorship”. The president denounced the attack as “barbaric”. Petra Diamonds suspends operations at its Tanzania mine after the government seizes a consignment of diamonds.

April 2018

The government announced new online regulations, banning material that “causes annoyance” or “uses bad language”, as well as requiring a licence for all media outlets including blogs. Critics claim the high fees and broad wording can be used to silence those who disagree with the administration.

June 2019

Opposition leader Zitto Kabwe is arrested in the latest of detention of a high-profile political, business and media figure. Prominent investigative journalist Erick Kabendera arrested the following month. Mr Kabwe calls for a parliamentary inquiry after a director at Tanzania’s finance ministry is found dead.

Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu

Via Financial Times

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