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Updated Feb 6, 2020

Tanzania has been a mediator in a number of African conflicts over the decades, playing a pivotal role in establishing stability in the region by serving as neutral ground for warring parties to meet. It’s all the more tragic that ahead of upcoming elections, Tanzania may be on a knife edge.

The semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar is at greatest risk of descending into chaos. In the 2015 general election, the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) showed early signs of victory until Tanzania’s electoral commission—under pressure from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM)—annulled the vote in Zanzibar, allegedly over irregularities in the voting process. Frustrated, the opposition claimed the allegations were fabricated and boycotted the re-run election in 2016, allowing the CCM candidate there to win handily and now governs under protection of state security forces.

Next elections are scheduled for October 2020, raising fears that the CCM will once again use underhanded tactics to subvert the results and remain in power. Should this occur, Zanzibar may become a spiral of agitation leading to security crackdowns and mass protests. The worst outcome would see Zanzibar become a hotbed of resentment and disdain toward the state, making it a prime recruiting area for nearby jihadist movements in Mozambique and Somalia.

Since President John Magufuli’s rise to power in 2015, the CCM has engaged in a full-on blitz to suppress any dissent. In 2016, the president banned political rallies and meetings on the pretext that the country should be focused on implementing the CCM manifesto. Opposition parties since that decree have faced continued harassment and even arrests. The most egregious abuse of power was the attempted assassination of outspoken opposition figure Tundu Lissu, who now lives in exile in Belgium after being shot while exiting parliament in September 2017.

CCM action toward Tanzanian media has been equally stifling. A suite of legislation ostensibly passed to combat cybercrime and other offenses has, in practice, been used to silence media critical of the government. Several journalists have disappeared or faced arrest and other harassment. The lack of scrutiny due to the weakened media environment means economic policies under Magufuli go unchallenged, resulting in declining growth and foreign direct investment as poverty and debt increase.

Righting the Tanzanian ship will require more than civil society organizations and opposition parties getting their act together, which they have, and which has seen numerous mass demonstrations against Magufuli and the complicity of the CCM. African regional partners and international observers are being called upon to ensure the October 2020 elections are free, fair, and untampered with. Otherwise, the crisis in Zanzibar may extend to the mainland and destabilize the wider Southern African region.

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