Tanzania has never been a model of transparency. European governments suspended aid more than a year ago because of shady, under-the-table mining deals, and despite some demanding young mavericks in Parliament, the government continues to stonewall all requests for basic information.
But now it’s getting very serious. For the first time the government has banned a major newspaper.
In times past the government has banned smaller papers and blogs, but the East African newspaper is a large regional publication that has been popular in Tanzania for twenty years.
The paper is one of the most aggressive in East Africa. Its investigative journalists recently published details of the government’s fraudulent passing of a new proposed constitution to ready it for a national referendum in April. This is likely what provoked the ban.
The outcry was immediate and from all points in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yesterday evening in an unusually harsh statement, the European Union condemned the move.
The Media Institute for Southern Africa further reported that the East African’s principal bureau chief in Dar-es-Salaam was detained and questioned by police.
The government is running scared. National elections are scheduled for October, and a referendum on the disputed new constitution is scheduled for April 30.
Neither are expected to go well. The proposed constitution was approved by a Parliament that was boycotted by virtually ever member of the opposition. Critics are especially angered by mechanisms intended to keep the party which has ruled Tanzania since independence firmly in control.
Among the mechanisms that would do this is the subjugation of Zanzibar, which was one of the reasons a new constitution was to be considered in the first place. It was presumed that a federal system would give Zanzibar considerably more autonomy and that would help calm the civil disobedience afflicting the island.
The East African aggressively reported these criticisms by the vocal and youthful opposition.
Last October the fractured opposition to the government announced a coalition to oppose the government candidates in the upcoming national elections. Today that appears to be evaporating, and in this moment of weakness I think the government wants to regain control.
It won’t work, of course.
As one of the comments to the story in Nairobi’s Daily Nation pointed out, most everyone reads the East African today online. The government has no way of banning that.
So the act of trying to do so is likely to do little except further inflame the situation.
At the same time if the opposition is unable to reconstitute its coalition I think it deserves to lose. There could be no better opportunity than right now to dislodge the ruling party. If this moment is missed, expect Tanzania to grow more and more repressive.