The Tanzanian government has entered into a dubious economic partnership deal with the Emirate of Dubai, and now it bullies its citizens from criticising it. A peaceful rally was forbidden, a media company was reportedly ordered to suspend a public discussion, and an ‘order from a high office’ demanded a television show be cancelled.
These incidents are all too familiar. They are also worrying signs for a fragile country that emerged from authoritarianism a few years ago. When President Samia Suluhu Hassan took office, many had warned that mere rhetoric and promises from the president to uphold democratic principles were not enough; we needed legal reforms to protect civic space.
Many others were more hopeful and decided to give the new government the benefit of the doubt. However, the cracks are becoming increasingly obvious now, and we should raise the red flags seriously.
From the nature and duration of the conversation, the port deal is increasingly becoming an effective litmus test of Samia’s commitment to protecting civic space. Many people are united in criticising the deal in a manner not seen in a long time.
Witnessing this level of public interest in this port issue has been refreshing!
Equally encouraging has been observing the Government’s Chief Spokesperson, Gerson Msigwa, actively engaging with citizens by participating in discussions on the social audio app Clubhouse and radio interviews to address public concerns.
While the quality of his responses is debatable, engaging with citizens on a crucial matter of public interest is the most basic democratic responsibility citizens can expect from their government.
Now, the government cannot place a time limit on this discussion and claim it is the only source of accurate information, dismissing anyone who disagrees as spreading misinformation.
Combating misinformation is undoubtedly important, but it should not target only those criticising the government.
Before authorities go after those they do not wish to listen to, they should ask themselves: Did the government negotiate the best possible deal? How soon did it share all necessary information with the public? Or did the public have to rely on leaked documents to find out what its government was doing behind closed doors regarding national resources?
Practising democracy is much harder than authoritarianism. It is not for the thin-skinned who cannot tolerate even mildly embarrassing comments. It does not involve selectively engaging in maridhiano discussions while silencing critics of a dubious agreement.
President Samia faces clear choices: listen to the public and secure a better deal for the nation’s interest or turn authoritarian and punish anyone who criticises her government.
Fortunately for her, she does not have to imagine the potential consequences of the authoritarian option too hard. We tasted it just a couple of years ago and learned that it is not worth it.
Sammy Awami is an independent journalist and analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @awamisammy. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.