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Why Civic Space in Tanzania Requires Some Panel-beating

Tanzania should initiate a bill for the enactment of a Freedom of Association Law that would repeal and replace the NGOs Act No. 24 of 2002 and govern the free operations of voluntary organizations, groups, entities and activities.

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Serious debate is missing on a number of critical issues in Tanzania. From politics and economics, current affairs and climate justice, there is hardly any serious scrutiny of issues after happenings.

Political rallies and later meetings were banned in 2016 by way of a mere presidential pronouncement, not even a decree. Later, the Political Parties Act cap 258 was broadly amended in 2019 to among other things curtail engagement with politicians.

Following a 10 year advocacy for the enactment of a law to expound on citizens’ access to and freedom of information, opinion and expression as enshrined by Article 18 of the Constitution, two pieces of legislation came about in 2016 namely, the Media Services Act Number 15 of 2016 which embeds quite a number of draconian sections and the Access to Information Act Number 9 of 2016, whose implementation was lagging behind.

In some respects, the two laws fall short of the standards set forth in the Constitution. Elsewhere, the Police Force has misused the provisions of the Police Force and Auxilliary Services Act cap 322 without any meaningful public contestation, for instance, to seek legal interpretation from the Courts. I have argued before and want to re-iterate that we are a very passive society!

Measures to restrict NGOs’ works

From 2017 onwards, the government of Tanzania instituted measures aimed at reducing the scope of registration windows for non-governmental and not-for-profits. The NGOs Act and its regulations were put into practice to the effect that all NGOs were to fall under the roof.

A short-lived grace period was given to all the NGOs – local, national or international to cross over to the registry of NGOs under the Ministry responsible for Health, Community Development, Gender, Disability and the Elderly, such a complex establishment.

Ever since, the government heightened surveillance on NGOs, with the establishment of a National Council of NGOs to work hand in hand with the NGOs Coordination Board for their oversight. Unfortunately, all did not go smooth with this.

First, more than half the number of NGOs that had registered and faired very well under the Registries of Societies, Companies or Trusts are defunct entities today.

The transfer to the one register was short-lived and some NGOs did not manage to make use of it either for lack of information on whether such a transition was underway or for not having known the consequences of moving on or remaining.

Tough procedures

After the deadline, NGOs were required to follow very tough – sometimes impossible – procedures to register afresh, starting with ‘name search.’ Some of these NGOs were required to send officials from as far as Sangamwalugesha in Simiyu or Kazuramimba in Uvinza – Kigoma to bring registration documents to Dodoma but to no success.

Information research and advocacy NGO based in Dar es Salaam was required to seek reference letters from the Ministry of Information, which was problematic given the fact that the organization had not done work with the ministry before. To date, so many of the NGOs that very much existed prior to the effectualization of the one registry for all NGOs are legally dead.

More recently, the registrar of NGOs launched serious surveillance and scrutiny of some of the large human rights advocacy NGOs, seriously intimidating them. For instance, the surveillance visits to these organizations did not give enough time of notice on the visitations.

In addition, the registrar issued a series of letters requiring them to show course why they should not be punished for things like coordinating NGO umbrella networks, something the registrar believed was a sole mandate for the National Council of NGOs.

In other respects, the registrar argued that it was illegal to host unregistered, loose coalitions of NGOs even when such forums were only for socialization purposes such as Annual CSO Director’s dinner or for reflections on the situation and welfare of NGOs. It is sad to mention that following these moves by the registrar, a good number of such initiatives are no more.

This means that the space for NGOs to freely meet, associate and think about their own affairs and the welfare of their society has been curbed.

Salt to injury

Like salt to injury, the last two years have witnessed suspensions and closures of bank accounts of some NGOs to investigate them on undisclosed charges. As a result, the programmes and operations of such organizations were grossly undermined. Some of these NGOs went un-operational for up to eight months, waiting to hear from the government.

That itself is intimidatory on two or three grounds. The staff and directors of such NGOs were grounded with pay for all that long. Even after passing that period, these human beings are still in a state of trauma for having missed a living for months.

Also, the communities who benefit from the programmes and operations of such NGOs must be wondering what must have been the reasons for the suspension or closure of the bank accounts of their ‘partner.’ This has the potential to adversely affect the levels of trust between the NGOs and the partner communities hence diminish outcomes.

Away from the beneficiaries, the donor must have been quite shaken by these events. First, doubting whether the NGO they were funding was the right choice given the fact that charity is part of international relations and diplomacy and no financier wants to antagonize the government.

But also, the donor must have been in panic with regard to the safety of the money during the period when the grantees could not access the accounts.

Access to information

With all that has been said above and more, these issues go largely undebated. There is a dire need for the implementation of the Access to Information Act, 2016 so that it is possible for the men and women of this country to demand reasons for every governmental action save for only a few cases where such information is legally classified.

The fact that so much has been happening without any responsibility to account is a serious flaw. Democracy requires that civic space is maximized and only regulated by law, not orders and decrees.

Tanzania already is a very passive and inward-looking society so further attacks on civic space are not healthy to the development of democracy in Tanzania and the East African region.

I urge the government to initiate a bill for the enactment of a Freedom of Association Law that would repeal and replace the NGOs Act No. 24 of 2002 and govern the free operations of voluntary organizations, groups, entities and activities. This new law’s jurisdiction should extend to Zanzibar as well as Mainland Tanzania.

Deus Kibamba is Executive Director of the Tanzania Citizens’ Information Bureau and Chairman of a number of national and international not-for-profits. He is available at +255 713 644357 and These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Would you like to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.


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