Tanzania

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TANZANIA 2021

Following the sudden death of President Magufuli, the incoming president established a task force to improve the authorities’ response to the pandemic, marking a shift in her predecessor’s policy of Covid-19 denial. The government continued to limit the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly by implementing draconian measures targeting political dissidents and opposition, human rights defenders, journalists and media outlets. The authorities continued to pressure Burundian refugees into returning to Burundi. The government lifted a ban on pregnant girls attending regular schools.

Background

Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn in as Tanzania’s first female president on 19 March. She pledged to improve human rights, but many of the commitments were yet to be acted upon at the end of the year.

Right to health

Public health prevention measures were largely absent in the earlier part of the year. President Magufuli, who died in March, had downplayed the scale of the pandemic, including by publicly dismissing the use of face masks, social distancing and vaccines. Until May, the government withheld information relating to Covid-19, disregarding WHO guidelines on how to respond to the pandemic.1 In February and March, religious leaders reported a surge in the number of Covid-19-related deaths, including of nurses, priests and nuns. The new president’s administration reversed her predecessor’s approach, strengthening measures to control the virus. On 28 July, the government rolled out its Covid-19 vaccination programme, which prioritized health workers, following a recommendation from a national task force set up in May by the incoming president to inform state response to the pandemic. The taskforce recommended that the authorities implement preventive measures to tackle the spread of the virus. In August, the government started providing electronic post-vaccination certificates as proof of vaccination, fulfilling international requirements. According to the WHO, Tanzania had administered over 2,431,769 Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of the year, representing 4% of the population.

Refugees’ and migrants’ rights

Burundian refugees in Tanzania continued to live in fear. UN human rights experts said that in 2021 the police and intelligence services, in cooperation with the Burundian intelligence services, continued to use violence, arbitrary arrests, strict encampment policies and threats of deportation to pressure the refugees to leave the country. The government also continued to implement refugee returns facilitated by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Government and UNHCR sources estimated that, at the end of December, there were 162,711 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, representing about 65% of the country’s refugee population; and UNHCR and other partners in Tanzania had supported more than 20,000 Burundian refugees to return to their country, many of whom left Tanzania because of pressure from the Tanzanian government.

Women’s and girls’ rights

On 24 November, the government announced it had lifted a 2017 ban on pregnant girls, and girls with children, from attending regular schools. Since 2017, the authorities had implemented the ban under the Education Regulations Act 2002 which states that students can be expelled if they are married or commit a criminal offence.

In August, the president made sexist and other offensive comments about women footballers, describing some of them as “flat-chested” and suggesting that their physical appearance would prevent them from marrying. The comments were made while she addressed guests at a function to celebrate the victory of a men’s football team in a regional competition.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions

In the early hours of 21 July, police officers raided a hotel in Mwanza town, arresting Freeman Mbowe, leader of the main opposition Party of Democracy and Progress, commonly known as Chadema, and 11 party officials. He was about to convene a meeting calling for constitutional reform.2 Later that day, three other men associated with Chadema were arrested in Mwanza. Freeman Mbowe was taken to the Oysterbay police station in Dar es Salaam, presented at court more than five days later and charged with offences relating to economic crimes and financing terrorist activities, based on allegations dating back to the period between May and August 2020. The move appeared to be a tactic to silence him. He was then transferred to Ukonga prison where he remained at the end of the year. The 14 others were accused of gathering illegally and contravening Covid-19 prevention measures, although such restrictions had not been made public. Eleven of them were released on police bail on 24 July and the remaining three on 25 July.

On 3 August, police arrested 22 women from BAWACHA (the women’s wing of Chadema), ahead of planned protests against Freeman Mbowe’s detention. The arrests took place in multiple regions, including the capital, Dar es Salaam, Mara and Mwanza. They were held in police detention for between four and 15 days before being released on bail.

Right to a fair trial

On 17 August, a court dropped criminal charges against Idris Sultan, a Tanzanian actor, comedian and radio host, who was arrested in May 2020 for alleged “cyber-bullying” after he distributed a video on social media in which he mocked the late president. The charges against him – “failure to register a SIM card previously owned by another person” and “failure to report change of ownership of a SIM card” – were dropped after the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) failed to prosecute the case.

On 22 September, a court dismissed a sedition case against the Chadema deputy party leader, Tundu Lissu, and four Mawio newspaper employees, after the DPP withdrew the charges. Since 2016, the five had been in court repeatedly, following the state’s claim that they published seditious content in the Mawio newspaper.

Freedom of expression

The Information Services Department, an official body in the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports which has the authority to license newspapers, continued to use repressive media laws to target and suppress independent reporting and restrict the media. The authorities imposed Section 59(2) of the Information Services Act 2016, which gives the minister of information powers to ban any newspaper and to censor media outlets.

On 6 April, the president instructed authorities to allow media outlets banned under her predecessor’s administration to resume operations. The director of the Information Services Department (also the department’s Chief Government Spokesperson), backtracked on the order, announcing on Twitter that the president had “directed the ban to be lifted for online television only” and therefore newspapers remained subject to the ban “according to the laws”.

On 11 August, the authorities suspended for 14 days Uhuru, a newspaper owned by Uhuru Publications Limited and established by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the ruling party. The authorities claimed that it had published a false report carrying the headline: “I have no intention of running for the presidency in 2025 – Samia”. The CCM Secretary General responded by saying that the newspaper’s board had suspended three senior managers, including the CEO, over the story and that they were conducting investigations as to why it was published. Uhuru resumed publication on 27 August.

On 5 September, the Information Services Department suspended Raia Mwema newspaper for 30 days, on allegations it repeatedly violated professional journalistic standards and broke the law by publishing reports that were misleading and amounted to incitement to violence.

On 23 September, the police arrested cartoonist Optatus Fwema at his home in the Bunju area of Dar es Salaam after he posted a caricature of the president on social media. He was detained at Oysterbay police station where he was denied access to a lawyer, including during interrogation. Optatus Fwema was released on bail on 8 October after he was arraigned in a Dar es Salaam court and charged with publishing false information online. He was facing trial at the end of the year.

On 2 October, Harold Shemsanga, a journalist for Mgawe TV, and six women members of Chadema were arrested while out jogging. They were charged with illegal assembly and held at Mbweni police station in Dar es Salaam before being released on 4 October without being brought before a court.

Human rights defenders

The authorities subjected human rights defenders to arbitrary arrest and detention, prosecution, intimidation, harassment and threats. On 5 January, a court in Dar es Salaam released human rights lawyer Tito Magoti, and his co-accused Theodory Giyani. They had been arrested in December 2019 in connection with social media activities and charged under the Economic and Organized Crimes Control Act 1984 for offences that do not allow for bail, and other charges under the Cybercrimes Act 2015 and the Anti-Money Laundering Act 2007. Their court case was adjourned more than 10 times before they were finally released after entering a plea-bargain agreement with the DPP under which they were ordered to pay a joint fine of TZS17.3 million (about US$7,400).3

On 20 April, the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), made up of more than 160 members, including human rights defenders and NGOs, announced that its bank accounts had been unfrozen. The police had ordered a commercial bank in Tanzania to freeze the accounts in August 2020, claiming it had failed to submit to the Office of the Treasury Registrar its contractual agreements with donors, leading the THRDC to suspend operations during that period.


  1. Tanzania: President’s new Covid-19 taskforce a positive move but the work starts now”, 26 April
  2. Tanzania: Release opposition leader and party members”, 21 July
  3. Tanzania: A chance to Prioritize Human Rights: Amnesty International Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review, 39th Session of the UPR Working Group, November 2021 (Index: AFR 56/3885/2021), 25 March