This is the first half of a two-part interview conducted by Nolan Quinn, a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program, and reviewed by Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow John Campbell. The interview was held on March 19, 2021—the day after Tanzania President John Magufuli’s death was announced. The second half will be posted in the coming days. Mr. Lissu has confirmed as accurate the quotes attributed to him in this post.
“Well, we are not trying to overthrow the government, are we? No? Right, so let’s do it on the record.” -- Tundu Lissu
Tundu Lissu, a Tanzanian opposition leader, does not aim to overthrow the government, but he nonetheless has big goals for his home country. Following the death of Tanzania’s authoritarian President John Magufuli, an avowed COVID-19 skeptic who likely died of the disease, Lissu plans to return to Tanzania to fight for democratic progress in a country that has experienced rapid democratic backsliding in the last five years.
“President Magufuli’s passing gives us an opportunity to return to the status quo ante. And I won’t stand for anything less.”
Lissu, a member of the opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (the Party for Democracy and Progress, CHADEMA), has spent his political career, which includes a ten-year stint in parliament, fighting for a more accountable polity in sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth most populous country. And it nearly cost him his life. In September 2017, he was shot sixteen times in what is widely seen as an assassination attempt orchestrated by the Magufuli government.
But Lissu survived. And three years and more than twenty operations later, he returned to Tanzania from Belgium last year, where he had been seeking medical care, to contest the presidential election held in October. After attracting huge crowds as he toured the country to campaign, he was defeated in a contest marred by intimidation and fraud, handing Magufuli another five years in office and forcing Lissu back into exile. But following the president’s untimely demise, Lissu is plotting his return.
Asked whether his plans upon returning to Tanzania are more in line with activism or a re-entry into politics, his response was simple:
“Is there a difference?”
Removing the Velvet Glove
In a previous interview with the Africa Report, Lissu said that while it was “very easy to point an accusing finger at Magufuli,” the former president also had “not changed a single provision of the constitution, and those powers were created by Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere,” Tanzania’s revered first president. Hence, talk of a return to the status quo ante seemed, at first, insufficient.
“Tanzania has always been authoritarian and violent,” Lissu explained. “There is continuity from the colonial to the post-colonial government. Both have lacked accountability and did not care about rights.”
“But what Magufuli did is he removed the velvet glove from the iron fist that has always been the Tanzanian state. He turned the security services above and beyond just the opposition.”
And, by using the organs of the state to take aim at civil society, musicians, and private citizens, Lissu thinks, counterintuitively, that Magufuli created an opening for more lasting—and positive—political change.
“Magufuli squandered his political capital with his ruthlessness. The Magufuli project was over. And then, even before he died, COVID had finished him politically.”
And now, after five years of the president’s “reign of terror,” Lissu sees a growing consensus that “the only way to prevent another Magufuli is a new constitutional and political order.”
Reforming the Constitution
“Tanzania has needed a new constitutional order for a long time,” according to Lissu, “and the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1992 made calls for reform louder, but not many people took reformers seriously.”
This was due, in part, to the perception among many Tanzanians and donors that despite the dominance of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (the Party of the Revolution, CCM)—the party has, in one form or another, been in power since independence in 1961—Tanzania had continued to democratize under Magufuli’s predecessors, President Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005) and President Jakaya Kikwete (2005-2015).
After Magufuli, however, “the case for a new constitution is unanswerable.”
Lissu believes that even Kikwete, who he accuses of torpedoing the constitutional reform process in 2014, along with the faction within CCM that aligns closely to him would now support a new constitution.
Asked what needed to be changed, Lissu answered that, first and foremost, a new Tanzanian constitution should do away with “the imperial presidency put into place by Julius Kambarage Nyerere.”
The “presidentialism” enshrined in the constitution should be abolished, Lissu said, as “giving enormous power to one person is dangerous in unstable societies,” as Magufuli so brutally demonstrated.
“Do we need a president that has the power to appoint officials all the way down to the district level?” Lissu asked rhetorically. He argued that Tanzania needs to “devolve and decentralize” power closer to where it is exercised, thus helping build “accountability from the bottom.”
Asked what a better system of government would look like in Tanzania, Lissu said that Tanzania should opt for a parliamentary democracy in which “parliament is the true center of power and the head of state is answerable every day to parliament.”
“The 1961 constitution gave us parliamentary democracy,” Lissu continued, “but it lacked a bill of rights.” Since the bill of rights was incorporated into the constitution in 1984, Lissu argues that “a parliamentary democracy now would be on a different plane than 1961.”
Lissu cares little about whether the head of state will retain the title of president. More important, he says, is function.
“In South Africa, they have a president, but he can still face a vote of no confidence just like the prime minister in London. Impeachment is impossible politically. We saw that even in the United States with Donald Trump. Impeachment is not a sufficient check on the power of the president.”
Beyond abolishing the imperial presidency, Lissu also sees need for a revisiting of the relationship between Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago that merged with the mainland—then known as Tanganyika—in 1964.
“I feel more strongly about the question of Zanzibar than even many Zanzibari nationalists,” Lissu suggested. “The 1964 Zanzibar Revolution was a coup funded, armed, and supported by mainland Tanganyika to overthrow the legitimate government of Zanzibar. The only way to maintain the Union since then has been through violence,” illustrated most recently when at least nine people were shot dead by police in Zanzibar in the run-up to the October elections.
Lissu, objecting to CCM’s use of force to control Zanzibar, said he supports Zanzibari calls for independence.
“Since 1984,” when changes to the Zanzibar Constitution further extended CCM’s influence over the islands’ politics, “there have been calls for a looser union which have not diminished.” Lissu pointed out that many mainland Tanzanians dismiss these calls outright, on the view that accepting a looser union is merely a halfway point to independence—and he agrees. But “it is up to Zanzibaris to decide whether they want to remain in the union and, if so, under what arrangement.”
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.