But the mood is not one of celebration, unity or tolerance of difference. Instead, the government’s creeping authoritarianism is meeting growing dissatisfaction.
As recently as February, leaders from across Tanzania’s civil society issued a statement expressing concerns of assaults on democracy, political opposition and even the rule of law. This was quickly followed by similar statements from Tanzanian religious organisations as well as the European Union Charge ‘Affaires.
The lead up to the national holiday was dominated by plans for anti-government demonstrations across the country, called for by a self-exiled political activist, Mange Kimambi. The protests were planned against the backdrop of what many critics see as the narrowing of political space by the government of President John Magufuli.
Magufuli has been in power since 2015. He promised major changes if elected, including a concerted effort to tackle corruption and unemployment.
The anti-corruption agenda has seen some notable achievements, not least the removal of 16 000 ghost workers from the government payroll in 2016. His successes on the jobs front haven’t been that noteworthy, though he has taken on the big multinationals by bringing in new mining legislation aimed at keeping more mining profits in Tanzania for use in a fund for national development.
In the end very few protesters turned out on Union Day. This can be put down to a very heavy-handed police response to previous protests as well as the abuse of people who had been arrested.
Memories of past repression remain strong. For example, I am currently writing up research that focuses on the memory of the brutal suppression in the town of Mtwara, after protests and riots in 2013. As one participant in my research told me:
The way the army and the police treated us then, and since, makes us scared to even go into town. My family and friends would not protest again, not matter how bad things get.
Authoritarianism is not new in Tanzania. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – or the Revolutionary Party – and its forerunner have been in power since independence and have tended to maintain a high level of political control. And yet the latest clampdown on dissent is a troubling sign when it comes to citizen rights in Tanzania.
The ability to protest is a widely recognised and respected aspect of democratic citizenship. But not only is protesting in public risky for Tanzanians, they are even constrained online by legislation. This is also placing limitations on what journalists feel they can report, even leading some to flee the country.
The government has also passed legislation putting limits on the freedom of speech online and making arrest easier.
This was the catalyst for the planned protests.
The law means that anyone who posts a blog or is active on social media, or runs an online platform, will have to pay for a licence to keep their sites running. These licences cost around US$900 and can be revoked if the content of the site is deemed to threaten public order and national security. Users potentially face 12 months in prison, or a fine of up to US$2300. This, in a country in which GDP per capita is US$877.50.
When plans for the protest were posted on social media, the president, interior minister Mwigulu Nchemba and Dodoma Regional Police Commissioner Gilles Mutoto responded aggressively. Dodoma is the seat of parliament, in central Tanzania.
Those calling for protests through social media, those thinking about protesting tomorrow, will be in a lot of trouble… They will get a toothless dog’s beating, I’m warning anyone planning to come to Dodoma, to loot or to protest, Tanzania has no place for that… we have no space for protest in Dodoma.
Police maintained a heavy presence and a few people were arrested, including some prominent members of the main opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo party (CHADEMA) – Kiswahili for The Party of Democracy and Development.
Union Day then passed without much incident.