When a prominent Tanzanian politician announced plans for a surveillance squad to hunt down and arrest homosexuals last week, it was just the latest sign of an intensifying repression that has terrified many Tanzanians – and cast doubt on Canada’s long-standing support for the country.
For decades, Tanzania has been a darling of Canada’s foreign policy. The East African country, known for its safari tourism and mineral wealth, has become one of the leading recipients of Canadian aid – including an estimated $2.3-billion in development funding since the 1960s – along with military training, peacekeeping assistance and billions of dollars in mining investment.
But if the Canadian government’s largesse was partly intended to build support for human rights and democratic values, the strategy seems to have failed.
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A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the Tanzanian threats against gay people are “of great concern” to the federal government. “The rights of LGBTQ2 people must be respected,” Adam Austen told The Globe and Mail on Friday. “We have raised this issue directly with the government of Tanzania.”
Hundreds of people have reportedly gone into hiding in Tanzania, fearing persecution by police or fellow citizens after the announcement by Paul Makonda, the administrative chief of the country’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam, who urged citizens to report any suspected homosexuals to the authorities. Homosexuality is already criminalized in Tanzania, with potential jail sentences of up to 30 years.
Within days of his announcement, Mr. Makonda said he had been deluged with more than 5,000 messages naming more than 100 suspected homosexuals.
The national government distanced itself from the announcement, saying it was not official policy. But shortly afterward, Tanzanian police arrested 10 men in the Zanzibar region and held them for several days on suspicion of attending a gay marriage ceremony. On Friday, according to several media reports, police said they plan to conduct physical examinations of the men to seek evidence of same-sex activities.
The persecution of homosexuals is the latest in a growing wave of human-rights abuses in Tanzania. The pattern began after the 2015 election of President John Magufuli, who portrayed himself as a corruption fighter. Critics have warned that the country has fallen into creeping authoritarianism since then.
Police have arrested journalists, opposition leaders, foreign mining executives, local businessmen, bloggers, musicians and many others. Several newspapers and radio stations have been banned, and bloggers have been hit with punitive taxes that forced many to shut down. When two researchers from the Committee to Protect Journalists arrived this week to investigate the situation, they too were arrested and held for five hours.
Mr. Magufuli has banned family-planning advertisements, complaining that women who use contraception are “lazy.”
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His government has even banned the publication of any statistical data that contradicts the government’s official statistics. A pollster who published surveys showing Mr. Magufuli’s declining popularity had his passport confiscated by the authorities.
The escalating repression is provoking protests around the world. The European Union recalled its ambassador from Tanzania this week, expressing concern about the “deterioration” of human rights and the rule of law. The World Bank announced on Wednesday that it is suspending all visiting missions to the country “with immediate effect.” It said it is worried about the “safety and security of all employees” because of the threats of “harassment and discrimination” against the gay community.
The United States has also denounced the human-rights abuses. “We are troubled by the continued arrests and harassment of marginalized persons, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and others who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed alarm at the threats to arrest gay people. “This could turn into a witch hunt and could be interpreted as a licence to carry out violence, intimidation, bullying, harassment and discrimination,” she said in a statement.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Tanzania have already been subjected to growing violence, harassment and discrimination over the past two years. And those defending their rights … have themselves been increasingly targeted, even arrested.”
Canadian diplomats, for their part, have raised similar concerns with Tanzania’s Foreign Minister and with Mr. Magufuli himself, according to a federal official.
He said he hopes Ottawa’s official disavowal of the threatened surveillance and arrest of gay people will have an effect. But if the arrests continue, Canada will work with its diplomatic partners to determine the next steps, he said, explaining that Canada is working with an LGBT task force in Tanzania that includes diplomatic missions from the United States, Britain, the EU, Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands.