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Magufuli is driving Tanzania further from human rights

The president is denying his people recourse to the African Court at a time they need it most.

Tanzanian president John Magufuli continues to drive his country away from good governance, democracy and human rights. His latest move was to withdraw Tanzania’s declaration allowing individual Tanzanians to directly seek redress from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against their government if they didn’t receive effective and timely remedy in national courts.

The African Court, ironically, is located in Arusha, Tanzania, because the country was once regarded as a bastion of justice. Magufuli has systematically changed the national character in that regard since coming to power in 2015.

At first Magufuli, nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’ for his aggressive style as a cabinet minister, was widely praised not only at home but across the continent for his crackdowns on bureaucratic incompetence, wastefulness, inefficiency and corruption. Increasingly though he has shown the same sort of intolerance to opposition, whether political, economic, social or cultural. In short he has become something of a tyrant, though a populist one.

Magufuli’s populist streak has perhaps been most pronounced in his handling of the economy. He has publicly accused foreign mining companies of stealing from Tanzania, hitting them with huge tax bills in a fit of resource nationalism that’s deterring future foreign investments.

John Magufuli was nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’ for his aggressive style as a cabinet minister

According to the International Crisis Group, Magufuli’s unorthodox development economics, funding major projects with domestic resources instead of external development finance, has sapped funds from social spending in a country where social welfare levels were already low. His drive to tax informal traders is adding to the hardships of the urban poor. So is his closure of many foreign exchange bureaux.

He has restricted political space for the opposition by, among others things, banning opposition rallies and prohibiting state television from broadcasting parliamentary proceedings live.

In July this year Magufuli’s government launched a campaign asking the public to report LGBT individuals so they could be prosecuted. In response the World Bank cancelled a loan, the EU recalled its ambassador and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet publicly warned that this ‘could become a witchhunt’. In 2017 Magufuli began enforcing a 1960 law that stops pregnant girls from attending regular schools. The accumulation of such tough measures has knocked his popularity from 96% in 2016 during the heyday of his attacks on inept and corrupt bureaucrats, to just 55% in 2018.

The CCM’s popularity has followed a similar downward trend in elections. The International Crisis Group fears that Magufuli’s ‘drift toward intolerance risks setting the stage for violent repression during the 2020 election, both in Zanzibar (where he has blocked reconciliation talks between the CCM and the opposition) and the mainland’.

Aggravating Tanzania’s offence is that the African Court is hosted in Arusha

Tanzanians could previously take these kinds of repressive measures to the African Court. But that recourse has been denied them by Tanzania’s withdrawal of its declaration under Article 34(6) of the African Court Protocol.

Though the Tanzanian government gave no reason for its decision when it announced it to the African Union Commission, human rights bodies noted that it followed soon after the court  ordered Tanzania’s government to remove from the penal code the mandatory imposition of the death sentence on persons convicted of murder. The judges ruled that the death sentence violated the right to life as stipulated in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Twenty human rights organisations, mostly African, said Tanzania’s withdrawal of its declaration under Article 34 (6) ‘undermines the authority of the African Court and defeats the purpose of its establishment’, which was to hold African states accountable for human rights violations and abuses.

Aggravating Tanzania’s offence is that the African Court is hosted in Arusha, Africa’s judicial centre, hosting also the East African Court of Justice (EACJ). From the mid-1990s it was also home to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (now the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals), which tried perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

How could SADC in good conscience condemn Tanzania? And how could the rest of Africa?

The human rights organisations also noted that the highest number of cases filed by individuals and NGOs in the African Court were from Tanzanian citizens (including 107 of its 172 pending cases) and that the Tanzanian government also had the highest number of judgments issued against it by the court.

They noted that Tanzanian victims of human rights abuses had now been deprived almost entirely of accessing any justice, as Tanzania has also refused to implement several EACJ judgments against it and had joined other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries in killing the SADC Tribunal’s human rights mandate. The human rights defenders called on the African Union, EAC and SADC to condemn Tanzania.

Sadly though this whole episode serves not so much to isolate Tanzania as the human rights champions would like, but to underscore the futility of championing human rights justice both in the SADC region and across Africa as a whole. The withdrawal of Tanzania leaves just eight African countries signed up to the Article 34(6) declaration – Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Tunisia and The Gambia. Rwanda made the declaration in 2013 but pulled out in 2016.

Even South Africa, self-professed champion of justice and the rule of law, has never made the declaration for reasons never made clear. So how could SADC in good conscience condemn Tanzania? And how could the rest of Africa?

It would be too obvious an irony that African heads of state decided to expand the jurisdiction of the African Court in 2014 to serve as an African alternative to the International Criminal Court, yet only eight of the continent’s 54 states are party to the declaration that allows this homegrown African court to perform that function. This makes a mockery of Africa’s professed commitment to justice.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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