OpEd: What you need to know about Tanzania’s homosexual crackdown fallout

Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner plans to set up a squad to hunt down and arrest gay people.

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By Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst at NKC African Economics

On Monday, November 5, the European Union (EU) recalled its ambassador to Tanzania, Roeland Van de Geer, because of the worsening human rights situation. This comes after Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda said that he would set up a squad to hunt down and arrest gay people.

The Tanzanian ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement on Sunday, November 4, distancing itself from the commissioner’s plan, saying it was his “opinion” and not the state’s position. The ministry said the government would respect human rights.

As there has been no news of Mr Makonda’s squad, it must be assumed that his plan has been blocked. However, The Guardian quoted an activist on Monday saying that houses were being raided and potentially targeted people were leaving the city for safety.

Mr Makonda’s public weeping at the Efatha Church on Sunday can perhaps be interpreted as an attempt to garner public sympathy before the fallout.

Regional commissioners are appointed by the president, and past controversies surrounding Mr Makonda – which he surprisingly survived – have created the impression that he is one of President John Magufuli’s closest allies and enjoys special protection.

For example, in March 2017 Mr Makonda stormed into the offices of Clouds FM Media Group with six armed men to insist they air a video alleging a popular pastor had had an affair; soon thereafter, Mr Magufuli fired not Mr Makonda but the information minister for launching an investigation into the incident.

“I, as president, don’t let anyone tell me what to do. I decide who should be where. So you Makonda, do your job and ignore the rest,” was the president’s answer to criticism.

More recently, there was controversy this year over a shipment of furniture the commissioner tried to import without paying taxes. He said that the 20 containers with furniture allegedly for teachers’ offices were aid from Tanzanians in the US, according to local newspaper The Citizen. This time, however, Mr Magufuli did not back up his ally.

The president in August called on Mr Makonda to pay the tax on the furniture and implied in his comments on the matter that the commissioner was being deceitful: “What if they come from your friends and you have imported them for your business interest but you use teachers as a scapegoat? Even the beneficiary schools are not mentioned, what does that mean? It means you want to use teachers to import furniture. What if they end up in some shopping mall somewhere?” he is quoted saying.

That he did not fire Mr Makonda for his pet peeve – the misuse of government office – speaks to the importance of the relationship and also shows that Mr Magufuli’s principles are more flexible than popularly believed.

It will be interesting to see how the president reacts this time seeing as the controversy over his favoured commissioner has gone international.

He will not want to be seen to be bowing to international pressure, and he seemingly does not have an issue with Mr Makonda’s stance on homosexuality – repression of LGBT+ groups has only increased under Mr Magufuli.

The EU will want to see some assurance that the government meant what it said in its statement about human rights and dismissing Mr Makonda appears to be the minimum gesture on this front.

Pressure from the EU to respect rights is potentially a positive development, but it would need to be wider than the focus on LGBT+ rights to have an effect.

The political environment in Tanzania has deteriorated significantly over the past three years with leaders of opposition parties routinely arrested (Zitto Kabwe of the Alliance for Change and Transparency-Wazalendo just last week), media freedoms curtailed, and protests effectively banned.

In short, there is little opportunity for local actors to have an effect. Pressure from liberal countries could help open the political space once again or it could drive Tanzania closer to China (which does not put conditions on assistance) and cause Mr Magufuli’s administration to become even more repressive.