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Tanzania’s opposition leader on reggae, resistance and his own resurrection

INTERVIEW

In the rare moments when Tundu Lissu takes a break from running his presidential campaign – the vote is just a month away – he plays Bob Marley in his study and starts to dance. When he talks about it, in an interview, he can’t help but sing along. “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.”

The 52-year-old opposition leader is a diehard fan. On his bookshelf are biographies of Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. He plays reggae music in his car on the way to campaign events, and the distinctive beats accompany him whenever he strides on to the stage to address the increasingly large crowds at Chadema party rallies.

It’s not just the music that he loves, but what it represents. Reggae is inspirational, Lissu says, and it tackles themes that are more urgent than ever: mercy, equality, social justice, and the struggle against dictatorship. This is a struggle with which Lissu is intimately familiar, and he has the scars to prove it.

Surviving the assassination

There is heavy security outside Lissu’s home in the upmarket Tegeta suburb in Dar es Salaam. Outside, three plainclothes security guards verify your details before letting you through the heavy iron gate. In the courtyard outside, another six guards search your person and your bags, checking for anything that could be used as a weapon. Surveillance cameras monitor everyone who goes in and out.

These precautions have not always been a feature of politics in Tanzania, which has historically been famed for its tolerance. But Lissu has every reason to be cautious. In September 2017, he returned from parliament — where he was the opposition’s chief whip — to his official residence in a government compound in Dodoma, the capital. As he neared the house, two gunmen opened fire from a trailing car. Lissu was shot 16 times, and left for dead, in a hit that he believes was ordered by the administration of President John Magufuli — nicknamed “The Bulldozer” by his supporters. The government denies any involvement, describing the gunmen as “unknown assailants”.

But Lissu didn’t die. His injuries were severe, requiring 27 operations, and he received medical treatment abroad. For nearly three years, he recovered in exile in Belgium. All that time, he was making plans to come back. As he told the Mail & Guardian in a February 2019 interview: “I’m going back once my doctors say yes. Magufuli has to be confronted. Is it dangerous? Yes. But living in a dictatorship anywhere in the world is a dangerous business.”

He flew home in late July, to a rousing welcome from hundreds of supporters at the airport. Shortly after that, he was confirmed as Chadema’s presidential nominee for the 28 October election.

It was an emotional return. “The happiness was also tinged with a sense of great sadness at the unnecessary pain and destruction wrought by five years of terrible repression.”

Lissu is not hopeful that the gunmen who attacked him will ever face justice. “Our systems are so completely compromised. They’d not dealt with a politically toxic case such as this one. It is very unfortunate.”

Time for change

It is not easy to gauge Chadema’s popularity, or Lissu’s chance of becoming president. Opinion polling is unreliable, and harsh restrictions on independent media make it difficult to obtain accurate information. The opposition party is running on a centre-right platform, and has promised to decentralise governance and privatise state-owned entities. It wants to reduce corporate tax and increase civil sector salaries.

What is clear is that the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi — which has never lost an election — is making it harder than ever before for the opposition. As Human Rights Watch reported earlier this month, the government has arrested more than a dozen opposition party members and blocked rights groups from observing the vote.

That’s not all, according to Lissu. He said new taxes on posters, placards and flyers have made it prohibitively expensive to print campaign materials; and that a combination of the poor economy and the repressive security environment means that fewer people are willing to be seen to donate to his campaign.

Despite all this, Lissu remains confident of victory. He thinks that the country has had enough of Magufuli, and is ready for a change. He is also just pleased to be back in Tanzania.

“It’s a huge relief to be back home where I truly belong,” he said.

Disclaimer: Simon Mkina, owner and editor of Mawio newspaper, was charged with sedition in 2016 for publishing remarks made by Lissu relating to the political situation in Zanzibar. The case is ongoing. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described the government’s campaign against Mawio as “harassment”

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