YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Following accusations that the Catholic Church had become too silent in the face of rising human rights abuses and violations of the constitution by President John Magufuli, the bishops of Tanzania have forcefully spoken out against the president’s anti-democratic posturing.
In a Feb. 11 pastoral letter, they attacked what they called “violations of the constitution and national laws” by the president, noting that “political activities are restricted by the forces of law and order.”
“Party political activities, such as public meetings, demonstrations, rallies, debates inside premises, which are after all every citizen’s right, have been suspended until the next elections,” which take place in 2020, the bishops wrote.
The bishops also criticized the Magufuli government for closing down or suspending media outlets critical of the government, saying that “such an attitude restricts peoples’ right to information, freedom of opinion and expression and their right to privacy.”
They said such government high-handedness breeds hatred and division, and has the potential to endanger peace, security and the lives of citizens.
“If we allow this to continue, we should not be surprised if we find ourselves embroiled in worse conflicts which will destroy the basis of peace and national unity,” wrote the bishops.
Magufuli was sworn in on Nov. 5, 2015, as Tanzania’s fifth president.
His Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party had ruled Tanzania for decades, and there was a sense that there would be continuity when he was sworn in to replace Jakaya Kikwete.
But the new president began his reign with a break from the past: Instead of condoning corruption, as had past administrations, Magufuli quickly established himself as an anti-graft crusader. On his first day in office, he paid a surprise visit to the finance ministry, where he berated civil servants who were not at work. A similar surprise visit to a hospital revealed the horrible conditions under which patients were kept, and the president promptly fired the hospital’s director.
And an audit of the Public Service led to the purging of over 10,000 “ghost workers,” people being paid for jobs they were not actually performing. The government estimated that $2.06 million would be saved per month as a result of the operation.
In his first year of office, Mugufuli cancelled Tanzania’s Independence Day celebrations, redirecting the funds to a clean-up campaign as a way of fighting disease.
The president said then that it would be “shameful” to spend huge sums of money on the celebrations when “our people are dying of cholera.”
But it now appears Magufuli was not only interested in fighting against corruption. He was also working to fight the independence of the media, political opponents, and human rights activists – which the bishops have condemned.
In 2016, Mugufuli signed the Media Services Act, which “specifies a punishment of three to five years of imprisonment and/or a fine … for intentionally publishing information that threatens the national defense, public safety, public order, or the economy or that injures the reputation, rights and freedom of other persons.”
The same punishment applies to anyone who operates an unlicensed media outlet, practices journalism without accreditation, without reason disseminates false information, or prints or distributes “seditious publications.”
The bishops and other critics have criticized the law, saying it seriously undermines freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
“Media are closed or temporarily suspended, thus restricting the right of citizens, to be informed, freedom of opinion and the right to privacy and expression,” the bishops said.
Catholic leaders have also complained about the president’s lack of interest in reviving the long-stalled efforts to review Tanzania’s constitution.
The constitutional review process started in 2011, but hasn’t progressed since 2014, and Mugufuli said it wasn’t part of his priorities upon taking office.
The review process aimed to trim the excessive powers of Tanzania’s president, to establish a supreme court, increase the independence of parliament, and improve the country’s federalism.
Bishop Severine Niwemugizi, of the Diocese of Rulenge-Ngara, said in September that without a review of the constitution, Magufuli’s presidency was doomed to failure.
The bishop said the government’s efforts “to revamp the economy should go hand-in-hand with the review of the constitution.”