Dar es Salaam. The Samia Suluhu Hassan Administration is under fire for its attempt to force through amendments to the Intelligence and Security Service Act of 1996 which the opposition, activists, and independent experts have decried as dangerous, undemocratic, and unnecessary.
Reports of the government’s plans to amend what is considered one of Tanzania’s draconian laws surfaced last week when opposition politician Zitto Kabwe accused the administration of attempting to force through the amendments without public oversight.
The former lawmaker and now leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party said he had reports that an amendment bill had been sent to the parliament, but it was not released in public for discussion, something Mr Kabwe said was both unusual and improper.
Following the criticisms, the amendment bill started to circulate on various social media platforms, where members of the public had an opportunity to see for themselves the administration’s plans to reform the country’s intelligence and security service.
Several proposed amendments have raised eyebrows among members of the public, who have been left wondering what exactly the government intends to achieve with them.
One particular proposal that has left Tanzanians awe-struck is the one that calls for members of the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service (TISS), the country’s national intelligence and security agency, to be given immunity for things they will do while on duty.
The amendment bill wants section 19(1) of the Act to read: “No action or other proceedings shall lie or be instituted against the Director General or officer of the Service for or in respect of any act or thing done or omitted to be done in good faith in [the] exercise or purported exercise of his function under this Act.”
The section in the current law reads: “The Director-General and all officers and employees of the Service shall each, performing his duties and functions under this Act, not be liable to any action for damages for any act done or omitted to be done by him bone fide in connection with, the duties and functions of the Service.”
Many have interpreted this decision as an attempt by the administration to shield members of the Service from accountability for their actions.
A blow to democracy
Aidan Eyakuze, Twaweza’s Executive Director, whose organisation promotes accountability within the government, described the attempt as “a body blow to our young [and] vulnerable democracy in Tanzania.”
“Perhaps the government of Tanzania, so keen as it is, and rightly so, to restore [and] enhance Tanzania’s global reputation could refrain from enacting amendments which remove independent parliamentary oversight on its intelligence service,” Mr Eyakuze wrote on Twitter.
What makes people so concerned about the proposal are the things that members of the Service have been associated with in the past few years, particularly under the previous administration.
Service members have been accused of interfering with political activities, mainly of opposition politicians. They have also been criticised for engaging in unlawful acts of harassing, kidnapping, and even murdering people perceived as critical to the government.
In 2017, Nzega Urban MP (Chama cha Mapinduzi – CCM) confessed in the parliament to having been arrested by intelligence officers and suffering harassment on their hands, telling the government to stop lying that such practices do not happen.
It followed a contribution by Mr Kabwe, then serving as Kigoma Urban MP (ACT-Wazalendo), who accused intelligence officers of arresting, kidnapping, and torturing people, saying they were responsible for the disappearance of Ben Saanane, Azory Gwanda, and other incidents of enforced disappearances.
George Simbachawene, then minister responsible for national security issues, denied the accusations, prompting Mr Bashe, now serving as Minister for Agriculture, to share his experience in the hands of intelligence officers.
It is against the law for intelligence officers to conduct surveillance on someone engaging in a lawful protest or dissent, according to section 5(2)(b) of the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service of 1996.
Mr Kabwe, after being asked by Mr Simbachawene if he could prove his allegations, said he was willing to do so before a government-appointed committee. On Wednesday, Mr Kabwe told The Chanzo that he was never called to appear before such a committee.
The same accusations resurfaced in the parliament in 2018, with the government maintaining that it has never been the task of intelligence officers to arrest and detain people.
Against this background, one of Mr Kabwe’s ideas on improving the amendment bill is to allow for forming the Parliamentary Intelligence Affairs Committee (PIAC) to ensure intelligence officers do not abuse the powers the law will give them.
But the issue of immunity is not the only proposal that has caught the attention of the bill’s critics. The other issue concerns the proposal to put intelligence operations under the president, doing away with the previous arrangement where they were under the respective minister.
Among people who have criticised the proposal is the Deputy Chairperson (Tanzania Mainland) of the opposition CHADEMA party Tundu Lissu who has interpreted it to mean from now on, the opposition will be “dealt with” through a direct presidential order.
“Among the people who have persecuted the people of this country are intelligence officers,” Lissu, who has accused intelligence officers of being responsible for his 2017 assassination attempt, told a rally in Katavi on May 24, 2023. “That used to take place under the respective minister’s order. Now, it’ll be under the president.”
Mr Lissu also took issue with the bill’s proposal that it will be among the Service’s functions to protect all presidential candidates during the general election, saying the arrangement will allow intelligence officers to listen to opposition candidates’ tactics to remove the ruling CCM from power.
“They will come not to help us but to deal with us,” CHADEMA’s presidential candidate in the 2020 election told rally-goers. “We will have these people protecting us while they report directly to the president, herself a candidate in the election. How safe [will opposition candidates] do you think will be?”
Press freedom attacked
From a press freedom perspective, the amendment bill will also anger stakeholders in the field. The current Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service Act is considered among the laws undermining press freedom in the country, and the proposed amendments only worsen it.
Section 16(1) of the law prohibits the publication of information revealing that someone – unless it is the Director General – is a member of the intelligence service or is connected in any way with a member of the Service.
According to the current law, the punishment for violating that section is a fine not exceeding Sh500,000. The proposed amendments want the penalty to be not less than Sh20 million or imprisonment for a term of not less than fifteen years or both.
In an interview with The Chanzo, Mr Kabwe called this provision among “the most troubling provisions” in the amendment bill, calling on President Samia Suluhu Hassan not to allow it to be tabled in the parliament in its present form.
He called the bill “a huge opportunity to reform the security sector,” pointing out proposals aimed at modernising the sector as some of the positive changes the bill seeks to bring forth, including formally recognising the Service as a defence and security organ unlike now where it exists as an advisory organ.
“There are about five controversial provisions in the bill, between sections 17 and 23, which can be amended if we exert enough pressure,” Mr Kabwe said. “President Samia must improve the bill by removing sections undermining fundamental rights and civil liberties.”