Tanzania’s opposition finds that forming a united front is not so easy

NEWS ANALYSIS

Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, has been in power longer than any other ruling party in Africa. Given its dominance, the only way the opposition is going to remove it from office is by forming a united front. 

The electoral calculus is obvious. Splitting the opposition vote means that the election is lost before it even begins. But by joining forces, the opposition poses a real threat to the ruling party.

Just look at the example of Malawi. In 2019, two major opposition leaders ran against the president. They both lost. Had they combined their votes, they would have won. Fortunately, that election was annulled due to electoral irregularities, and the opposition got a chance to do it all over again this year. This time they made no mistake. Running a joint ticket, the opposition secured a convincing victory, and are now in power.

But joining forces is easier said than done. In an interview, Tundu Lissu, leader of Tanzania’s largest opposition party Chadema, said that electoral regulations have been designed to make it harder to form coalitions. 

“It’s the law here that any electoral coalition must be approved, or rejected, by the registrar,” he explained. “But before he makes his decision, the registrar, an appointee of the President, must be availed of all information concerning the coalition, which he cannot be trusted not to share with the ruling party and our other enemies.”

Zitto Kabwe, who leads Tanzania’s second-largest opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo, told The Continent that coalition talks are often derailed by personality clashes and disputes over positions. “From my experience, it is more to do with the ego of leaders. The short-sightedness of opposition leaders, not seeing a bigger picture. Not seeing what we are fighting for. People see things in a prism of posts rather than the cause.”

Kabwe said that he is determined not to let his own ego get in the way of an opposition coalition. He has already stepped aside once before, when he endorsed former foreign minister Bernard Membe as his party’s presidential candidate. And he is now preparing to do so again. “Outside the alliance, both of us will be beaten by Magufuli. Inside an alliance, even if we don’t have all those bigger posts, you are able to grow, and re-energise, ready for the next fight.”

Jeffrey Smith, the founding director of Vanguard Africa, which has advised activists and opposition campaigns in Cameroon, the Gambia, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, said: “This is going to sound mundane, but quite honestly the biggest challenge that I have seen and have worked to try and assuage over the years has been the petty, often personal political differences that inhibit various individuals and opposition parties who essentially agree on 99% of the issues.”

To defeat President Magufuli, Tanzania’s opposition leaders are going to have to overcome these differences — and fast. Having missed the deadline to form a formal coalition, this is likely to take the form of an “endorsement”, where one leader tells his followers to vote for the other leader. Sources close to the senior leadership of both Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo have told The Continent that these negotiations are at an advanced stage, and to expect an announcement soon.

Disclaimer: Simon Mkina, owner and editor of Mawio newspaper, was charged with sedition in 2016 for publishing remarks made by Lissu relating to the political situation in Zanzibar. The case is ongoing. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described the government’s campaign against Mawio as “harassment”

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