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Here’s Why International Community Won’t Sanction Tanzania

Opposition parties and rights activists have called on the international community to impose sanctions on Tanzania to force authorities to uphold democracy. But how likely will the global society heed this call?

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Three weeks since they took place on October 28, 2020, Tanzanian elections continue to make headlines both locally and internationally. The new administration under the newly-elected leader President John Magufuli has been taking measures aimed at assuring the world that the country is unified and politically stable. But this has gone hand in hand with a widespread clampdown on opposition members and supporters. No effort has been taken on the part of the new administration to reconcile with the opposition which dismissed the October 28th election as “a sham” and refused to recognise the new government. On their part, leaders of opposition parties have tried several means to get authorities to work on their grievances, including calling for nationwide demonstrations to protest the results of elections and pressurise authorities to acquiesce to their demands which include the calling for fresh elections. But these efforts have so far failed to produce the intended results as they have been unable to force the government to the table. It is against this background that opposition parties have now resorted to the international community, asking it to intervene on their behalf and force the government to negotiate with them. One way that opposition leaders think this can be accomplished is the imposition of targeted sanctions against all those responsible with the alleged disruption of the October 28th election. But how is it likely that major partners to Tanzania, especially the United States, UK and the European Union, will pursue that path?

Beyond occasional press releases and single-sentence statements, most of them shared on the social media platform Twitter; there has so far been no substantial, clear-worded, response from either the international community or foreign missions in the country. This is so even though there is an almost unanimous agreement among all observers of Tanzania’s political developments that what happened on October 28th was anything but a free and fair election.  A more active engagement by the standards of foreign missions in Tanzania is the response by the German Embassy which was actively involved in the case of CHADEMA deputy national chairperson and the party’s presidential candidate in the October 28th election Mr Tundu Lissu. The Germans are said to have reportedly followed up on the issue of Mr Lissu after the firebrand politician was arrested outside the Umoja House building which houses the EU, UK, German and Dutch missions in downtown Dar es Salaam. German Ambassador to Tanzania Mrs Regine Hess gave shelter to Mr Lissu after he alleged that his life was in danger. The Germans also facilitated Mr Lissu’s logistics to flee Tanzania to Belgium where he went to seek asylum. A critical examination of various statements by foreign diplomatic missions in Tanzania shows that there is admittedly a concern with what is happening on the ground. However, it seems there is a clear restrain on acting, at least in the way that would please opposition and rights activists. Various factors inform the current attitude on the part of the foreign envoys in Tanzania.

The threat of violent extremism  

During a recent meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament, on November 19, 2020, among the countries discussed was Tanzania. Members of the Committee deliberated on various issues of concern on Tanzania – EU relations, including the manner with which Tanzania organised its just-concluded elections as well as the decision by EU to grant Tanzania a total of €27million (about TZS74billion) to fight the harmful effects of COVID-19 while the country has announced to the world that it was covid-free. Some members of the Committee questioned if the EU was willing to continue giving budget support to Tanzania and whether the EU was willing to stop it. Although he did not say it explicitly, EU  Deputy Managing Director for Africa Mr Bernard Quintin suggested in his remarks that that was unlikely for various reasons.

But the biggest of all is the rising threat of violent extremism in southern Tanzania, at the country’s border with Mozambique where insurgents linked to the Islamic State have wreaked havoc on the communities, killing and injuring dozens and made hundreds of others to flee their homes. In his response to members of the Committee, Mr Quintin admitted that the EU is interested to see the situation gets back to normal at the border and this was the reason why the EU needed “political dialogue” with the government of Tanzania. Mr Quintin said: “A question was raised here about the southern border of Tanzania. We are looking at the problem of stability in northern Mozambique. Now, we believe that cooperation between Tanzania and Mozambique has improved. The EU has already declared that it is willing to support this and so in this way that we have to be in political contact with Tanzania.”

Various European countries had funded a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project, Preventing and Responding to Violent Extremism, which among other things, looks at developing the National Strategy and Action Plan for preventing and responding to violent extremism in cooperation with the government. On the other hand, the United States Department indicated in its 2019-report that governments of Tanzania and the United States had engaged in limited counter-terrorism cooperation. In March 2020, the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs said in a Twitter post that the United States is looking forward to reinforcing “the importance of countering violent extremism in the region and improving Tanzania’s business environment.” It is clear that the recent intensification of terrorist incidents in the southern part of Tanzania, plus government acknowledgement of the threat, will make the international community think twice before it takes any action that will put at risk the political dialogue it seeks with authorities in Tanzania.

Business interests and pressures of domestic affairs 

In recent years most international partners have been keen on changing their international development policy from aid to trade. This has been reflected in various diplomatic strategies, such as the Dutch  Tanzania Country Strategy 2019-2022, the decision by the UK government to slash billions in its overseas aid budget and in remarks by world leaders, like the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently questioned the aid its country gives to Tanzania, saying it is too big while the country doesn’t even serve the British interests. Also, due to the contraction of the global economy as the results of the COVID-19, it is expected that most countries will shift their priorities to trade diplomacy. Action or inaction of the international community will thus depend on how the political situation on the ground has directly or indirectly affected their commercial interests.

While business interests do not necessarily determine foreign policies, there are some projects worth mentioning when analysing the possible international community response to the ongoing political crisis in Tanzania. Take the Total oil pipeline, a $3.5 billion project currently implemented under smooth supervision of the Tanzanian government, as one example. The deal involves the French oil giant Total and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Other trade deals include the contract to purchase two new planes from the European maker Airbus. In  mining and exploration industry, some projects worth noting with international exposure consists of the newly incorporated company between Tanzania and Canadian company Barrick, the Twiga Mineral Corporation which has by far received ten new exploration licenses in Tanzania. Further,  Rukwa, Eyasi and Balangida helium project involving a London based start-up, Helium One. The project was even highlighted by President John Magufuli in his inauguration in the Parliament, expressing optimism that the project could supply the world demand up to twenty years.

As for the United States, which many think is the most likely country to impose sanctions on Tanzania, analysts fear that the Joe Biden administration will be preoccupied with domestic issues back in his country, with COVID-19 being on top of the agenda as more and more people will need to be supplied with the vaccine to control the pandemic. This, thus, leaves very little room for any immediate response on the situation in Tanzania. But this does not kill the real hope. President-elect Biden is a foreign policy savvy and so is his party, the Democratic Party. Therefore, he might see the need to send a clear message to authorities in Tanzania as far as democracy and human rights are concerned. If the US take such a decision, it will not be the first time to do so. Earlier in January 2020, the US government banned one of Tanzania’s prominent politicians, Mr Paul Makonda, due to his alleged involvement in human rights violations.

The threat of growing Chinese influence

And then there’s the growing China influence in Africa, something that logically makes the Western powers think twice before they respond to any particular situation whether in Tanzania or any other African country. This is simply because there is a real fear among the Western powers that if they pursue a tough stance on Tanzania, for example, that will give China advantages at the expense of the West interests in the country. Unlike many Western countries, China does not concern itself with issues of human rights and democracy, calling them internal issues which they see no point of meddling in.

China sells its win-win foreign policy to African governments, attaching its aids and loans to African governments with fewer strings, something which has made them attractive to most African leaders, including Tanzania’s President John Magufuli. Even with the recent elections, the reaction between China and Western power could not have been more divergent. While many Western countries criticised the manner with which the elections were organised, China on its hand sent a congratulatory message to the President-elect Magufuli. Therefore, whatever decision Western powers will make concerning the situation in Tanzania it will undoubtedly take into account the question of the Chinese influence in Africa.

All indications thus point to a disappointing but honest reality: If there is going to be any international responses to the unfolding political situation in Tanzania, then it is going to be relatively modest. Earlier on October 3, 2020, in a statement shared on Twitter, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that they might consider the use of targeted ban on individuals, saying: “The United States is committed to supporting free and fair elections, including the upcoming elections across Africa. We will not hesitate to consider consequences – including visa restrictions – for those who undermine democracy.”

While the opposition in Tanzania is waiting for the response from the International community, it is safe to say there is a need for lowering expectations on what the international community can do. Because the trend suggests that even if there is going to be a response, it’s not going to be as immediate as opposition and rights activists in Tanzania would wish. It is thus vital for political actors to think of new ways of engaging with the situation on the ground and how they can operate in the new political environment now under creation in Tanzania.

(Article has been updated on November 26, to reflect the correct name of the current German Ambassador)

Tony Alfred is a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at  and on Twitter through @tonyalfredk . These are writers’ own opinion and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative.


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