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Without Organised Citizenry, Strong Institutions, Tanzania’s Democratic Ambitions Will Remain Far-Fetched

We spend five years complaining about corrupt leadership, but then we elect them again.

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I guess we all think we know that democracy is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. And we have all been led to believe that that means political parties and periodic elections, right? 

And yet we see time and time again that, yes, we the people elect others to represent us but after that are those representatives of the people and for the people? We have been taught to believe that elections, therefore, have the power to bring change but how often do they only bring the illusion of change? 

We might change some of the people driving our MaVee 8s (ours?) but has there been any real change for the people?

And I think this is because we have been cheated. Right from the so-called push for democratisation across Africa by our wafadhili and mafedhuli, we have been led to believe that the essence of democracy is multi-partyism, or, as the Malawians so rightly described it, matea-partyism

Because mateaparty on their own very rarely brings democracy. Indeed, they very rarely bring any real change either because, while political parties are important, they are not the greatest guarantee of democracy, as they can be so easily marginalised, as we saw in the last election, without an array of other key things in place which are equally important.

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I would like to take the case of the United States, not because I think it is the most democratic country, and its leaders certainly have nothing to teach us about democracy, but because democratic struggles there best illustrate my argument.

Organised people

Whatever democracy there is in the North American nation has been forged out of struggle, firstly by African Americans and other minorities – only 70 years ago many did not even have the right to vote and they had to struggle to get that right, and people died just for that right.

But because they joined together and fought for their rights, there has been, at least, some change.

The workers, too, had to join together in unions to fight for their rights, and many died in the struggle. However, because they joined together and fought for their rights, we have paid holidays, higher wages, decent wages, affordable health care, job security, and safe and respectful workplaces. 

Women also had to join together to fight for their rights and many were imprisoned and died for rights that we take for granted today. The media, professional associations, local interest groups, students etc., all had to fight to exist and make changes which contribute to democratic rights in our societies. 

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They have to continue fighting on a regular basis because those in power are always looking to curtail or even abolish those rights. They know that it is these organised groups that give power to political parties so that they don’t become tea parties. That is why political parties can be allowed to exist, but their foundations continue to be suppressed and harassed across the globe.

Independent institutions

Also, these rights that they have fought for cannot be sustainable without independent institutions to defend them. They fought to establish and then maintain those institutions. Individuals can easily be ‘disappeared’ but institutions cannot. 

Those institutions are the bedrock of democracy, which makes it possible for people to speak and act freely and openly, for political parties to exist, and, hopefully, for change to be fought for.

You also need the integrity of those running those institutions. Without certain individuals standing firm, such as those in the State of Georgia in the U.S., who refused to be enticed or browbeaten into changing the election results by a president, no less, those institutions can be subverted. 

This requires both individual courage and assurance that their institution will stand by them in protecting those rights that people have suffered and died for. 

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Of course, there will always be a few martyrs who are prepared to stand on their own, whatever the consequences, but many of us will want to be sure that we are supported, that we are together when we stand up. Hence the popular saying here about ‘Who will bell the cat?’

Where are we?

These are the guarantees of democracy so we should ask ourselves, how many of these do we have in Tanzania today? Do we have independent trade unions? Do they have the right to strike for higher pay and/or better conditions in their workplaces? 

What happens when they do strike? Can people assemble of their own free will and organise for better this or that without being harassed or without waiting for blessings to drop like manna from above? At the village level, are people allowed to meet and organise without first asking for a permit?

These are important questions because, without these rights, the rights of political parties are always under threat, and elections become a charade as there are no institutions, created out of struggle, to back them up. 

For example, people knew, and even some senior leaders in the ruling party have tacitly admitted, that the 2020 election was not free and fair, but people were not organised, apart from in the political parties that suffered, so there was no organised reaction, as there was in Malawi or Kenya, for example, to overturn the election. 

We speak, we write, enough!

Corrupt leaders?

I disagree with many of my friends and colleagues about the nature of leadership in this area. I don’t know how many times I have heard people lamenting that we don’t develop because our leaders in Africa are corrupt or ignorant or dictators or I don’t know what. 

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Maybe many are, but I keep on telling them that there is little or no difference between leaders around the world. For example, imagine the orange monster being president of an African country. Or Bojo. 

They would be a complete disaster because there are very few strong civil society institutions, strong enough and organised enough to stand up to the leadership and their minions.

So, we should not kid ourselves that while we continue to have a renamed ‘independent’ electoral commission controlled by the state, everything will change. 

We do have independent institutions, to some extent, like the CAG, hence the exposure to year after year of massive looting and neglect, but there are no other independent institutions to back them up and ensure that action is taken after the exposure. 

Even the previous CAG was unceremoniously removed while we watched, complained, and did nothing. We spent five years complaining about corrupt leadership, but then we elected them again.

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This comes back to education. Are our schools centres of democracy? The syllabus may talk about democracy, but what about the system? In that old phrase, the medium is the message. What is the medium teaching our children? 

Silence, follow your leaders, cram what they tell you, and obey; otherwise … Is that preparation for democracy? 

Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

Digital Freedom and Innovation Day
The Chanzo is hosting Digital Freedom and Innovation Day on Saturday April 20, 2024 at Makumbusho ya Taifa.

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