When President Samia Suluhu Hassan took over as President of Tanzania on 19 March 2021, following the death of President John Magufuli, civil society in Tanzania was under siege. Freedoms of expression, assembly and association were at an all-time low with restrictive policies and laws in place, stifling the ability of the media and civil society to raise concerns over human rights issues.
At the time President Hassan took power in Tanzania, more than 1,000 kilometers away in Zambia, the human rights situation was similar. Respect for fundamental freedoms was appreciably deteriorating in the run-up to the August 2021 election, with the opposition being targeted and concerns about the potential for electoral violence. The election however resulted in a change of government, with Hakainde Hichilema becoming the new president.
In Tanzania, between 2015 and 2020, at least four laws harming freedom of expression were introduced, including regulations that imposed exorbitant fees on bloggers and social media users. The Tanzanian authorities also imposed a ban on several media outlets and passed at least four laws restricting freedom of association. Ahead of the 2020 election, parliament amended the Political Parties Act, given the authorities extensive powers to deregister political parties. This was followed by violence, arrests, attacks and intimidation of members of the opposition.
In Zambia, prior to the August 2021 election, the authorities used provisions of the NGO Act to target civil society organisations. Amendments to the act in 2020 led to an increase in the government’s monitoring of the activities and funding of civil society under the guise of tracking illegal activities such as money laundering and terrorism. The authorities shut down media outlets and targeted journalists. Members of the political opposition were subjected to arrest and intimidation.
How collective activism is shifting the tide on civic space in Tanzania and Zambia
President Hassan and President Hichilema should be credited with lifting some of the restrictions imposed by their predecessors.
In Tanzania, in February 2022, the government lifted a ban on four newspapers and dropped charges against Freeman Mbowe, one of the main opposition leaders, who was released from jail. The Hassan administration has also lifted a ban that prevented pregnant students from attending school.
In Zambia, in December 2022, the government abolished the death penalty. It’s also amended the 2009 NGO law that imposed onerous restrictions on civil society organisations.
In Zambia, the change to the NGO law reflected a more than a decade of civil society advocacy. All these changes came in the wake of civil society campaigning, offering evidence of the power of collective activism and civil society resilience. They also showed that the restriction of human rights is a political choice, and it’s possible for political leaders to make more progressive decisions, if they give civil society a chance to speak up.
What does the future hold?
The recent lifting of some restrictions in both countries is a welcome and positive step in the right direction – but it’s just a start. Major challenges remain in both countries, with continuing significant restrictions on freedoms of association, assembly and expression.
President Hassan has indicated she will contest elections in 2025, and President Hichilema will likely stand for a second term in office. Before elections, both leaders should commit to respect human rights and engage more with civil society to seek ways to lift civic space restrictions, and build independent institutions that enable scrutiny and accountability. That would signal lasting change..
David Kode is the Advocacy and campaigns Lead for CIVICUS and often writes on constitutional issues, elections, human rights and civic space.