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Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu during an interview with AFP on Nov. 14, 2020. After losing an Oct. 28 presidential election in a disputed vote, Mr. Lissu, was among around 150 opposition members arrested in a government crackdown.


After sharply criticizing the conduct of Tanzania’s much-disputed election and the wave of arrests that surrounded it, the Canadian government quietly dispatched its top local diplomat to pay her respects at President John Magufuli’s inauguration ceremony this month.

The seemingly contradictory gestures were an example of the dilemma that Canada faces as it tries to balance its traditional African aid partnerships with a growing concern for human-rights abuses and anti-democratic conduct in countries such as Tanzania.

While the Trudeau government swiftly congratulated U.S. president-elect Joe Biden as soon as media outlets declared him the winner, it has declined to offer any public congratulations to Mr. Magufuli, whose ruling party claimed an overwhelming 98 per cent of parliamentary seats in the election.

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For decades, Canada has been one of Tanzania’s biggest supporters, providing more than $2.38-billion in development aid to Tanzania since the 1960s, including nearly $133-million in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Gunshots and tear gas fail to deter Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu

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But independent analysts say the Oct. 28 election lacked credibility. Opposition candidates were almost entirely defeated, despite months of huge campaign rallies across the country. Postelection protests were banned, internet access was restricted, scores of people were arrested and several opposition leaders have fled the country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said last week that she was disturbed by “reports of continued intimidation and harassment” against opposition leaders and members in Tanzania.

She cited reports of police brutality against opposition members on voting day, and reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since Oct. 27.

The main opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, was briefly arrested after the election. He sought refuge at the German embassy and eventually fled to Belgium. He had been shot 16 times by unidentified men with assault rifles in a 2017 assassination attempt, but returned to Tanzania this year to run in the election.

An independent group of international experts, Tanzania Elections Watch, said it is concerned by the arrests and violence against opposition members. There seems to be “a targeted persecution of politicians and civil society leaders in the country based on their political inclinations,” the group said in a statement on Monday.

Despite the arrests and election-rigging concerns, Canada decided to send its High Commissioner, Pamela O’Donnell, to attend the inauguration ceremony for Mr. Magufuli’s second term in office.

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“Canada is a steadfast friend of the Tanzanian people and will always be a partner in their pursuit of full social, economic, political and civil rights,” Jason Kung, a spokesperson for the Global Affairs department, said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

“That being said, Canada is aware of the irregularities observed during the electoral period and the violence against civilians and imprisonment of opposition leaders,” he said.

He said Canada is calling for “timely and transparent investigations” into the electoral issues.

In an earlier tweet this month, the department said it was concerned by “the detention and arrest of opposition politicians, reports of violence and election irregularities.”

The Globe asked whether Canada would reconsider its large financial support for Tanzania in light of the arrests and electoral irregularities, but the department did not reply directly to the question. Nor did it respond to questions about whether it officially recognizes the results of the election.

A prominent Tanzanian opposition leader, Zitto Kabwe, said he was disappointed that Canada sent a diplomat to Mr. Magufuli’s inauguration. But the Canadian government’s refusal to issue public congratulations to Mr. Magufuli is “good news,” he told The Globe.

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Mr. Kabwe and another Tanzanian activist, Maria Sarungi Tsehai, have both sent letters to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to request the court to investigate the Tanzanian government for alleged crimes against humanity.

Ms. Tsehai, founder of the Change Tanzania social movement, said her letter to the ICC cites evidence of enforced disappearances, the systematic persecution of political opponents and critics, and the killing and torture of civilians by security forces. “Considering the evidence, including testimonies and authentic audiovisual material, I am convinced that there are solid grounds for an initial thorough review,” she told The Globe.

Other foreign governments have expressed their own concerns about the Tanzanian election. The U.S. ambassador, Donald Wright, said he was “deeply troubled” by the conduct of the election, although he too attended the inauguration ceremony. Japanese ambassador Shinichi Goto said he was concerned about “widespread irregularities and wrongdoings” during the elections.

Mr. Magufuli, for his part, has been unshaken by the criticism – and has even suggested that democracy should be limited in Tanzania.

“The purpose of freedom and democracy is to bring about development, not chaos,” Mr. Magufuli told parliament last Friday. “Freedom, rights and democracy go with responsibility and each has limits. I hope I’m well understood.”

Dan Paget, a Tanzania expert at the University of Aberdeen, predicted that the election will lead to “a new era of authoritarianism” in Tanzania. “Any resemblance that Tanzania has borne to a liberal democracy seems to be slipping away,” he said in an article on The Conversation, an academic website.

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“Not only is the apparent scale of election manipulation unprecedented; the authoritarian landslide will be presented by the regime as a vindication of its extreme authoritarian project over the last five years.”

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