The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is the Tanzanian government making information illegal?

The Parliament of Tanzania in Dodoma, where a recent law was passed that would criminalize the publication of some statistics. (Keith Weghorst)

Tanzania’s recent proposal to criminalize the publication of “misleading” statistics or data reads a bit like the high school valedictorian being caught smoking in the bathroom and, rather than ruefully extinguishing her cigarette, proceeding to blow smoke in the face of the school principal.

Tanzania rose to the top of the class of aid-dependent countries by enacting reforms aimed at promoting transparency, accountability and the rule of law. In 2008, Tanzania scored a five-year package of grants in 2008 worth $698 million from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – the largest grant in the program’s history. Last year, the MCC agreed to provide another $10 million.

President Kikwete’s signing the so-called “Statistics Bill” into law would call Tanzania’s transparency and accountability commitments into question. What’s more, the bill is one of several that the government has hastily fast-tracked through Tanzania’s most recent parliamentary session. These include a Cybercrimes bill that would empower the government to arrest citizens for publishing information deemed “defamatory,” likely to “disturb the public peace,” or “misleading or inaccurate” in print and online. The rushed and opaque manner in which these bills were presented to the public has raised concerns among analysts of Tanzanian politics. Only one of the six bills is available on Parliament’s Web site: a draft version of the Cybercrimes Act.

For a donor darling with tremendous electoral popularity, Tanzania’s moves may seem odd. The ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has been in power for over 50 years and has held a parliamentary supermajority across four multi-party elections.

However, a general election is just six months away. CCM lost considerable ground in the 2010 elections and also saw dissatisfaction in the form of declining voter turnout, down to just 39 percent of registered voters in 2010, compared with over 70 percent in all three previous elections. The opposition has capitalized on this dissatisfaction, particularly through the use of public forums and parliamentary debate.

Throughout Tanzania’s ongoing constitutional review process, a unified opposition, UKAWA, pointed to public opinion surveys showing the constitutional draft proposed by the ruling party, and ultimately passed, was not what the majority of Tanzanians want.

CCM’s discomfort with growing public alignment with the opposition can also be seen in the government’s 2013 attempt to ban live broadcasts of parliamentary sessions. The Statistics Bill reads like yet another attempt to quell the dissemination of any information that could be used to paint the incumbent regime in a bad light and to further maintain control over the public discourse.

The government has managed to stifle public debate over its failures rather well. For example, despite global attention to recent corruption scandals in Tanzania, public opinion data indicate that domestic awareness of the scandals is shockingly low. The graph below — which would be illegal to publish under the Statistics Bill — indicates that less than half of citizens in mainland Tanzania “knew of” five recent high-level corruption scandals. These include: a multimillion-dollar energy scandal that has forced the resignation of four top government officials (“IPTL”); former permanent secretary of energy and minerals David Jairo allegedly bribing members of Parliament to pass his ministry’s budget (“David Jairo”); a British firm using bribe money to win a radar contract in Tanzania (“BAE Systems”) ; fraudulent payments made from the Bank of Tanzania’s External Payment Arrears (EPA) Account (“EPA Payments”); and another energy scandal involving the improper contracting to U.S.-based electricity company Richmond Development in 2006, ultimately forcing the resignation of then-Prime Minister Edward Lowassa (“Richmond Generators”). Notably, Lowassa is now considered to be a front-runner for the CCM Presidential nomination.

These corruption scandals have been consequential for Tanzania’s good standing amongst donors. In October 2014, donors withheld nearly $500 million in aid until action was taken in response to the multimillion-dollar energy scandal. As of last month, only $44 million had been released, following the resignation of three cabinet ministers. Rather than take further action to visibly reduce corruption, Tanzania’s government seems more focused on making sure that no one can defame them with official statistics. In other words, the Tanzanian government appears willing to accept the international consequences of their responses to domestic political vulnerabilities.

Why isn’t Tanzania more worried about donor backlash? Because Tanzania is becoming less reliant on foreign aid. In 2013, Tanzania came in 6th place on the list of 10 biggest oil and gas discoveries of the year. The revenues anticipated from this discovery has led to extremely buoyant growth projections – the governor of the Bank of Tanzania recently stated that the country could expect to see growth of over 15 percent annually within the next decade. Although the governor used the same press conference to allay concerns about a “resource curse” following the natural gas discovery, the experience of other countries does not bode well, particularly in terms of the effects that oil revenues have on governance.

While gas revenues are not yet flowing, money from China has become increasingly important in the Tanzanian economy. The UK still bests China when it comes to overall investment to Tanzania, but China has become the country’s leading trade partner. Unlike aid from Western donors, Chinese investment is not tied to governance conditions.

Thus, while hastily passing the fast-tracked bills may seem like costly blunders by Tanzania’s ruling party, their actions are consistent with the behavior of a ruling party willing to hold onto power at all costs. The more that the government can weaken the legitimacy of opposition criticism—by monopolizing the flow of public information—the better they are positioned to prevent scandals and poor performance from hurting them at the polls.   The valedictorian has a new set of friends, and they don’t care about good grades.

Ruth Carlitz is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UCLA and was a Boren Fellow in Tanzania in 2013. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthcarlitz.

Keith Weghorst is a post-doctoral fellow at the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and was a Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Tanzania in 2012-2013. Follow him on Twitter at @keithweghorst.