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Tanzanians in Diaspora Seek Improved Civic Space to Contribute to Democratisation at Home

They emphasise the need to be able to vote while abroad, saying their disenfranchisement limits their ability to contribute to change in Tanzania.

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Dar es Salaam. The name Mange Kimambi, a Tanzanian living in the United States, is not unfamiliar to many people using social media, especially Instagram and X, formerly Twitter. 

Since 2016, Kimambi has gained significant popularity due to her criticism of government policies, starting with the previous administration under John Magufuli and now with his successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan.

While public opinions differ on the true motivations of her activism and her use of harsh and sometimes abusive language, many recall Kimambi’s historic move in early 2018 to organise anti-government protests in Tanzania while outside the country, which almost brought the country to a standstill, forcing the Magufuli Administration to deploy a significant number of riot police officers to prevent people from heeding Kimambi’s call.

The protests, now commonly referred to as Maandamano ya Mange in Swahili, or Mange’s Protests, never materialised but signified the role diaspora can play in supporting democratisation efforts in their home country, a matter of critical debate within both activist and scholarly circles, not just in Tanzania but Africa generally. 

Central to these debates, for instance, is the issue of legitimacy, whose supposed lack on the part of people living outside the country has been weaponised on numerous occasions by authorities and other bad-faith actors to delegitimise the diaspora as part of bigger efforts to silence them.

Legitimate voices

But in conversations with some members of Tanzania’s diaspora, who have supported democratisation efforts in the country, using mainly social media as avenues of activism, The Chanzo learned that the individuals find their voices as legitimate as those of their compatriots at home. 

READ MORE: CHADEMA Pro-Democracy Demos: Will Tanzania’s Opposition Party Prove Doubters Wrong?

“What gives me legitimacy and puts me at the forefront of fighting against what is happening at home is my right of birth [in Tanzania],” Hilmi Hilal, a prominent government critic based in Toronto, Canada, told this publication in an e-mail interview.

“Secondly, even though I am not physically present, I am compelled to fight because I directly feel its effects through my family members and even fellow citizens who are experiencing hardships,” added Hilmi, who is engaged in maritime activities in the North American nation, speaking about the high cost of living crisis.

Hilmi, who hails from Zanzibar, echoed the voices of many from his diaspora community when he pointed out his connections to the homeland as the motive for his significantly online-based activism. Others, like Onesmo Mushi, studying in the United States, share other motivations.

“Not all Tanzanians have had the opportunity and privilege to live outside Tanzania and compare its development with that of other countries,” Mr Mushi, passionate about education, reasoned. 

“So, for me to have the opportunity to live abroad, even for a short time, gives me the responsibility to make this comparison, to ask why others have reached this stage [of development] while we lag behind,” he added. “And ultimately, to be part of those fighting for change because democracy is one of the foundations of those changes, so I have to fight for it.”

READ MORE: NDI President Ambassador Derek Mitchell: Solutions Lie in More Democracy, Not Less

Hilmi’s goal is as clear as day: “I have been promoting democratic changes in [Tanzania] because I want to see leadership changes that will open the doors to real development—a development that will benefit my fellow citizens, something which is currently lacking.”

However, several limitations hinder diaspora activists from effectively participating in Tanzania’s democratisation efforts. One limitation concerns their main avenue for activism, social media, which authorities have not stopped restricting when needs arise.

Restricting speeches

In 2020, for instance, the Magufuli Administration unprecedentedly shut down the internet immediately after Tanzanians participated in heavily contested presidential and parliamentary elections, throwing everyone into darkness and preventing them from staying updated on significant election developments.

While President Samia has won plaudits for reforms that her administration has implemented to improve political pluralism in Tanzania, others have accused her of muzzling speeches critical to her policies. 

These include allegations of restricting access to the social audio app Clubhouse, which recently grew into a digital town hall where Tanzanians meet to discuss the direction of their nation. For instance, during the DP World saga, Clubhouse served as a platform where Tanzanians aired raw and uncensored views on the controversial deal.

READ MORE: Stakeholders Gather in Dar to Reflect on State of Democracy Ahead of Civic, General Elections

Sauti ya Watanzania, a Clubhouse room launched by a U.S.-based Tanzanian opposition leader, Liberatus Mwang’ombe, was notable for hosting critical debates about the deal, with people like former Tanzanian Ambassador to Sweden Willibrod Slaa as guest speakers, metamorphosed into a significant voice championing critical reforms online and offline. 

Against this background, some Clubhouse users experienced difficulties accessing the social media platform, with others reporting that they’ve had to resort to using VPNs to gain access. The Chanzo could not independently confirm the allegations, but an internet observatory watchdog, NetBlocks, stated on February 15, 2023, that its analysis showed that Clubhouse was restricted in Tanzania. 

However, the High Court of Tanzania, ruling on a case Clubhouse user Paul Kisabo filed against the government on the same grounds, said there was no evidence that the government has restricted access to the social media platform and thus dismissed the case.

Right to vote

But perhaps no restriction bothers Tanzania’s diaspora more than their inability to vote in elections, a restriction they’ve been urging authorities to remove so they can participate in democratic processes that determine their country’s future.

“Anyone who is denied the right to vote is directly affected,” Mushi told The Chanzo in an e-mail interview. “My vote is the only weapon I have as a citizen to participate in my country’s developments. Denying me this right means denying me the right to be Tanzanian.”

READ MORE: Democracy Identified As Prerequisite to Development

Several countries worldwide, including Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, allow their citizens to vote wherever they are. On May 23, 2019, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa informed the parliament that the issue of Tanzanians living abroad voting is a matter of policy, and he said the processes to formulate it are underway.

The Chanzo asked deputy foreign affairs minister Mbarouk Nassor Mbarouk when exactly such processes will conclude but directed us to the chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Judge Jacobs Mwambegele, who said that they haven’t even begun.

Thabit Jacob, a Tanzanian living in Sweden, who has been very active in pro-democracy activism, is pessimistic that Tanzania will one day allow diaspora members to vote. Jacob, a researcher and public intellectual, said that unlike in other countries, Tanzania’s diaspora community is too small to influence authorities to change their policy.

But echoing the voices of other Tanzanians at home who express distrust of the country’s electoral systems and their perceived inability to deliver free and fair elections, Jacob warns that voting should not be the goal of activism but total legal and political reforms.

“Voting is the right of every eligible citizen, but the main thing is being Tanzanian, so lacking that opportunity is unfair,” says Jacob, who is also a university lecturer. “However, it’s not a big deal because the electoral systems and the independence of the [electoral] commission are still flawed so that the votes won’t make any difference.”

“We should fight for Tanzania with a better system of justice and equality, true democracy, the rule of law, and citizens with a meaningful and secure life, and [with] income,” he emphasised.
Lukelo Francis is a journalist for The Chanzo from Dar es Salaam and can be reached at

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