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Nolan Quinn is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program.
On January 19, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo—on his last full day in the position—announced visa restrictions on “Tanzanian officials responsible for or complicit in undermining” the general elections held in late October last year. As of yet, none of the individuals sanctioned have been identified publicly. In announcing the measures, Secretary Pompeo asserted that “there are consequences for interfering in the democratic process,” while the U.S. embassy in Tanzania said it had “kept its promise” to hold accountable those officials who had interfered in the elections.
Prior to Tanzania’s elections, Secretary Pompeo released a nonspecific statement urging African governments to hold “free, fair, inclusive elections.” The Tanzanian government, led by President John Magufuli and the increasingly authoritarian ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), undoubtedly failed to heed Secretary Pompeo’s call. However, the same could be said of incumbents in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Uganda, none of which faced a response from the Trump administration beyond rhetoric. While the reasoning behind the decision to single out Tanzania—one that belies the Trump administration’s weak record of defending democracy in Africa—is not clear, what is apparent is that U.S.-Tanzania relations have sharply soured in the past decade.
Until recently, the U.S.-Tanzania partnership was strong. In 2013, President Barack Obama became the third successive U.S. president to travel to Tanzania. In a joint press conference with Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, who was also the first African head of state to visit the Obama White House, President Obama commended Tanzanians—and their government—for “doing their part to advance the good governance and transparency upon which democracy and prosperity depend.” Obama, in touching on the “spirit of friendship” the two countries enjoyed, was not merely offering a one-sided, feel-good bromide: from 2006 to 2012, approval of U.S. leadership in Tanzania stood at an average of over 72 percent; in 2015, 78 percent of Tanzanians expressed confidence that President Obama would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” Tanzania has also consistently been among the top two or three recipients of bilateral aid administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in sub-Saharan Africa.
However, the 2015 annulment of an election in Zanzibar—one initially praised as the smoothest in the semiautonomous archipelago’s history—precipitated what has been a rapid deterioration in bilateral relations. Citing the Zanzibar election and limitations on freedom of expression, in March 2016 the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. foreign assistance agency, suspended its partnership with Tanzania. Magufuli further irritated relations when, in June 2016, his government unilaterally cancelled a contract with Symbion Power, a U.S. company that had received more than $110 million in MCC procurement awards. Pressure to act against the Tanzanian government rose further amid a crackdown on human rights, which included the president’s pledge to set up a “surveillance squad” targeting the gay community. On January 31, 2020, the Trump administration announced sanctions against Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, for his role in targeting “marginalized people,” and on the same day, the White House added Tanzania to a list of countries—considered by some commentators the final iteration of President Trump’s much-maligned “Muslim ban”—for its apparent failures to share public-safety and terrorism-related information.
Pompeo’s final imposition of sanctions for electoral malfeasance is likely to command support across the aisle. In the U.S. House of Representatives, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a resolution noting discontent with the Tanzanian government’s conduct in business disputes and its role in suppressing dissent in the lead-up to the elections. Following the vote, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) called violence by security forces “the culmination of five years of sustained attacks by the Magufuli administration against the country’s democratic institutions,” while U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Donald J. Wright, a political appointee, noted that “detaining opposition leaders is not the act of a government confident in its victory.”
Tanzanian opposition figures have welcomed Pompeo’s move. Zitto Kabwe, a Tanzanian opposition leader, had already expressed a desire for other countries to sanction Tanzania. Fatma Karume, a former president of the Tanganyika Law Society who was disbarred seemingly for her political activism, thanked the United States for “saying NO to IMPUNITY” and giving those “who believe in DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS renewed vigour.” Magufuli’s main contender for the presidency in October’s elections, Tundu Lissu, called the move a “clear and unmistakable warning to dictators who stole elections.”
The question for the Biden administration is not whether it will repeal sanctions against Tanzanian officials. Without wholesale changes in Tanzania’s political climate, it will not, though the broader travel ban is almost sure to be axed. More pressing is for President Biden and his coterie of advisers to decide whether to send similarly strong messages to other authoritarians in Africa, particularly in Uganda, where reported abuses have been on par or worse than those in Tanzania. While the United States’ democratic credentials have certainly been damaged following the assault on the U.S. Capitol, failing to punish blatant abuses of human rights would do nothing more than leave autocrats comfortable in their ill-gotten victories.