2020 elections marred with gross irregularities spark growing concern for civic space in Tanzania

General Situation

Tanzania’s general elections took place on 28th October 2020. Incumbent President John Pombe Magufuli claimed a landslide victory with a reported 84% of the vote in the presidential election. In the run-up to the elections, the fairness of the electoral process was repeatedly questioned by national and international observers, who pointed to an uneven playing field between the ruling CCM party and opposition parties. The ruling party’s weaponisation of the law against opposition parties, in particular Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo, and candidates’ campaigns caused much concern, and ultimately led the leading opposition candidate, Tundu Lissu, to reject the results of the vote. Magufuli was sworn in for a second five-year term on 5th November 2020.

In Zanzibar, which held its own elections, military personnel were deployed on the streets and at polling stations, and opposition candidate Seif Sharif Hamad was arrested with leaders of the ACT-Wazalendo party on 29th October 2020.

During the election, the Tanzanian authorities only allowed delegates from the East African Community, the African Union and South Africa to send monitors. Several election observers were not allowed into Tanzania and opposition parties were denied observation at some polling stations.

On 5th January 2021, four civil rights organisations sued the Tanzanian government for “massive violations” in the October 2020 general election. The organisations from Kenya and Uganda sued Tanzania at the East African Court of Justice, alleging that security agents clobbered, disappeared, detained and even killed opposition supporters during the election campaigns as well as after the results were announced in October.

Relatedly, on 20th January 2021, the US government imposed a visa restriction on several Tanzanian officials for undermining a free and fair election. The State Department criticised the actions of Tanzanian officials undermining the election process, resulting in a downward trajectory of the country’s democracy.


Harassment, arbitrary arrests and attacks against opposition leaders, members and supporters were widely reported in the weeks leading up to and during the October 2020 general elections. On 28th September 2020, Chadema party leader Tundu Lissu’s convoy was teargassed by police when heading to a campaign meeting. During the election, Lissu claimed that Chadema party members were expressly prevented from reaching some polling stations and denied the right to vote. 

In Zanzibar, ACT-Wazalendo’s presidential candidate was detained briefly at a polling station on 27th October 2020. Relatedly, Nassor Mazrui, Deputy Secretary General of ACT-Wazalendo was released by authorities on 17th November 2020 after spending 23 days in detention. The party claims Mazrui was abducted from his home and beaten and denied access to his party members.

In response to the reports about the harassment and violence against opposition members, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a statement on 10th November 2020 condemning the violence and continued harassment of opposition leaders and supporters following the election.

After the elections, following continuous reports of the arrest of opposition leaders, several fled Tanzania, including Chadema party’s Tundu Lissu, who left for Belgium after spending a few days at the German Ambassador’s residence, and Godbless Lema who left to seek asylum in Kenya.

In separate developments, as the onslaught against the LGBTIQ+ community continues unabated, on 20th January 2021, LGBTIQ+ rights defender Paschal Raymond was killed. His colleagues claim his death is related to his well-known work defending the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Dar es Salaam. The police launched an investigation, holding two suspects for questioning.

In other developments, on 5th January 2021, prominent human rights lawyer Tito Magoti and Thedory Giyan, an IT specialist at a private firm, were set free by a local court. The duo paid a fine of 17.3 million Tanzanian shillings (USD 7553), as part of a plea bargain. Human rights defenders criticised the court’s verdict, claiming the accused were forced to buy their freedom. As previously reported on the Monitor, Magoti was arrested on 20th December 2019 in Dar es Salaam, in what is believed to have been retaliation for his human rights work, and charged with non-bailable offences of economic crimes.

Peaceful Assembly

The lead up to the election saw several violations against the right to peaceful assembly specifically targeting opposition parties, their supporters and members.

On 27th October 2020, clashes erupted between police and opposition supporters who were gathered outside a polling station after the supporters tried to stop the army distributing ballot boxes which they suspected contained pre-ticked votes. Police used teargas and beat the supporters. Reports claimed that three people were killed and at least nine injured in the clashes.

On 2nd November 2020, police arrested chairman of the Chadema party Freeman Mbowe and several other politicians as they met to arrange demonstrations to protest the election result. On the same day, police sealed off areas where a demonstration was planned and banned the protests officially. It was reported by Chadema party leadership that Mbowe was being charged with non-bailable terrorism. On the same day, Tundu Lissu was briefly detained and questioned by police, reportedly in connection with the planned protest.

A blanket ban on political rallies had been in place since 2016, when President Magufuli ordered it. In practice, the ban has been enforced to prevent opposition parties from holding gatherings, while CCM-led gatherings were able to proceed.


As the October 2020 general elections neared, many opposition parties complained of threats and repression, while freedom of expression and press freedom have been steadily curtailed.

On 2nd October 2020, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) stated that they would be suspending Tundu Lissu’s campaign for seven days, following allegations that he made ‘seditious comments’ at a rally. Following this, on 6th October 2020, police blocked Lissu’s convoy after he reportedly defied the ban on campaigning.

On 2nd October 2020, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) stated that they would be suspending Tundu Lissu’s campaign for seven days, following allegations that he made ‘seditious comments’ at a rally. Following this, on 6th October 2020, police blocked Lissu’s convoy after he reportedly defied the ban on campaigning.

Ahead of the election, Facebook launched several programmes to combat election interference and misinformation, including a feature providing official voting information. Despite efforts to increase information surrounding the elections, social media, including Twitter and WhatsApp, was largely restricted across Tanzania in the days leading up to the election. The difficulties continued throughout and immediately after the election, with WhatsApp users complaining that they were unable to download photos or videos. Twitter was also only available when using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

In addition, from 24th October to 11th November 2020, Tanzanian authorities ordered the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority to suspend bulk SMS and voice calls in order to stop mass messaging or calling during the election. There were also reports that messages carrying the names of opposition leaders were not able to go through and were being systematically rejected by the national server.

Separately, in a trend highlighting the wider scope on restrictions to expression, on 3rd January 2021, Australian activist Zara Kay was arbitrarily detained in Tanzania after her satirical social media post criticising how the government was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Her lawyer claims her belongings including her passport were confiscated during her interrogation and later lost. Zara was allegedly subjected to further questioning and continued to face criminal charges after her release.

In a positive development, on 1st March 2021 Zanzibar’s president Hussein Mwinyi reaffirmed the government’s commitment to work with journalists. Mwinyi expressed his support for legal reforms, stating “Zanzibar must have a good media law in order to develop socially and economically”.