Last Saturday, we in Tanzania kicked-off our official campaign season that will culminate in elections at the end of October. Twenty four million Tanzanians are registered to vote to elect a new President, Parliament, and local government Councilors.
Unfortunately the day after, the government kicked-off a more ominous campaign: to stifle the democratic hopes and aspirations of the people of Tanzania by making a mockery of free and fair elections.
We in Tanzania and the supporters of democracy throughout the world must not allow this to happen.
Tanzania is the largest nation in east Africa, blessed with abundant resources and hardworking people. We are a young nation, gaining independence just over a half-century ago. Ours is a peaceful history, not marked by the coups and ethnic conflicts that have afflicted other countries in the region.
For our entire history as a sovereign nation, Tanzania has been ruled by only one party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the Party of the Revolution. In 1992, for the first time, a multi-party political system was instituted. Since then, the opposition parties have grown gradually stronger.
In the last election in 2010, my party, Chadema (the Party of Democracy and Progress) received almost 30% of the vote, with the combined opposition receiving 40%.
For the upcoming election, the four biggest opposition parties united to create the Ukawa coalition and agreed to support one person for president. Our candidate, the popular former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, crossed over from CCM, stating the change Tanzania needs will not be brought about through a ruling party that has been in power for 50 years. With strong candidates across the nation, the united opposition has created the real possibility, if elections are free and fair, that the people of Tanzania will vote out the CCM on October 25th.
Moved by fear of losing, the ruling party is now resorting to undemocratic methods to maintain its grip on power. First, they passed a Draconian election expenses act which forbids the importation of any campaign materials, including flags, vehicles and finances, 90 days before the polling date. This deadline fell three weeks before the party's official nomination day. How can any candidate purchase materials before they know they are the official nominee?
On Monday, the police arrested 19 Chadema youths who were signing up supporters. They were arrested for the simple act of public campaigning. When the former Home Affairs Minister Lawrence Masha went to the police station to request their release, they arrested him, too.
The next day, the police ruled that our candidate Lowassa could not meet with the public. CCM was shocked by the public reception the former prime minister received when he drove on a bus to bring attention to the desperate need for better public transportation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city.
Increasingly, the police are blocking our campaign's travel routes and disallowing our campaign plane from using airports. They have refused to grant our rally permits in the very grounds CCM held a rally only a few days before.
Finally, the government announced on September 1st, they will begin enforcing its free-speech suppressing "Cyber Security Act," which makes it a crime to criticize the government in emails or across social media.
By disallowing free speech and the right to assembly, and by arresting our youth for simply campaigning, the ruling party is clearly seeking to thwart the will of the people. We who have worked so hard to bring democracy to Tanzania will not accept this. We ask the support of people in the US, in Europe, in the rest of Africa and across the world to exert pressure on the government to allow both active healthy campaigns and free and fair elections.
We all applauded President Jakaya Kikwete, who after serving two-terms, is freely stepping aside, as required by the constitution. But we call on him as head of the government to allow free and fair elections, and if CCM is voted out, to allow a peaceful and orderly transition. A real multi-party democracy demands nothing less.
Freeman Mbowe is a Member of the Tanzania Parliament, Chairman of Chadema, and leader of the opposition.