Tanzanian President John Magufuli holds up a ceremonial spear and shield to signify the beginning of his term on Nov. 5, 2015, in Dar es Salaam. (AP)

Over the past month, Tanzanian politics has been making international headlines. Journalists representing the Committee to Protect Journalists were detained in Dar es Salaam, the country’s commercial capital. The government expelled pregnant girls from school. Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner for Dar, announced plans to round up LGBT people. Eventually, the rest of the government distanced itself from Makonda, but the damage was done. Donors have withdrawn aid. The European Union and the United States condemned these human rights abuses.

What’s going on? Since 1961, Tanzania has been ruled by the same party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). While it has never been a democracy, Tanzania had been better known as a safari tourism destination and as a donor darling. How have things become so repressive so quickly?

The answer lies in the 2015 election of John Magufuli as president. Since then, opposition politicians have been arrested, harassed and beaten. TV offices have been raided and newspapers suspended. Regime critics — journalists, business executives, opposition politicians, student leaders — have been kidnapped, forced into exile or assassinated by “unknown assailants.” Some have never been seen again. Much more violence outside Dar es Salaam hasn’t been reported, even in the Tanzanian press.

Tanzania’s president has delegated the government’s repression to local officials

Much of this violence has been kept quiet because it has been local. Magufuli’s autocratic enforcers are a cadre of local officials. On paper, the 26 regional commissioners and 139 district commissioners are nonpartisan appointees who oversee elected local governments and policing functions. In practice, they are party loyalists or former military officers. They exploit their oversight role, often violently, to deal with local problems that might challenge the president.

That role is especially significant in Dar es Salaam. Regional Commissioner Makonda, seen as Magufuli’s apprentice, does much of the government’s dirty work. The government has shied away from open repression, which could lead to losing international aid and moderate voters’ support. Through local officials, Magufuli can use violence — while still being able to distance himself from an “unruly local official” when necessary.

Makonda’s crackdown on LGBT people followed this formula. But this time, Magufuli’s closeness to Makonda undermined his plausible deniability. Tanzanians see regional and district commissioners as the president’s hands at that level. Makonda’s threats were allowed to stand for more than a week to send a message. International disapproval forced the foreign affairs minister to issue a statement disavowing him.

Nevertheless, hundreds of LGBT people are still in hiding. They knew the censure was lip service. Tanzanians see Makonda’s actions as a more reliable sign of the president’s wishes than an international proclamation.

Why has this president escalated the government’s violence and repression?

This president’s control over his party and the voters is shakier than that of his predecessor, Jakaya Kikwete. Magufuli’s nomination as the candidate of the ruling party, CCM, took everyone by surprise. He won despite not having broad support. What’s more, Magufuli faces an unprecedented threat from opposition parties. CCM may have never lost a presidential election, but it has lost many local elections. In 2015, opposition parties won control of most urban local governments. This was no small loss. Local government is highly important, providing education, health care and water. Opposition local governments are the only examples Tanzanians have ever had of opposition politicians with real power. The result is a threat to CCM: Why vote for the devil you know if another party can demonstrably run a city of 200,000 or even 5 million people?

My research explores the strategies CCM uses to manage these local opposition threats. Between 2015 and 2018, I conducted hundreds of interviews with voters, politicians and officials in both CCM and opposition areas. I find that regional and district commissioners take a more active and violent role in areas where the opposition runs local governments. They make it difficult for opposition governments to effectively deliver public services, thereby simultaneously punishing those who voted for the opposition and discrediting opposition parties.

These commissioners increasingly operate with unchecked power. This month, Iringa’s regional commissioner unilaterally removed the opposition mayor, Alex Kimbe, from his post under suspicion of corruption. Kimbe, a popular and often defiant local figure, has been arrested frequently on spurious charges. They have also been implicated in attacking civilians — something the ruling party tries to keep hidden. For instance, opposition MP Zitto Kabwe revealed that authorities and herders had clashed in his region of Kigoma, allegedly leaving more than 100 dead. After Kabwe made the allegation, authorities charged him with sedition.

Outside Dar es Salaam, most government violence is directed at opposition parties and their supporters. CCM has paid dozens of opposition councilors to switch sides since 2016. In Morogoro, a “swing” city, one opposition councilor was assassinated in 2018 after refusing to switch. After these councilors switch sides, new elections are required — and are often quite violent. Regional and district commissioners in the regions of Iringa, Arusha and Mbeya ordered the arrest, violent harassment and torture of opposition politicians and supporters during such campaigns.

Magufuli, a devout Christian, is keen to win over the party’s increasingly evangelical base. Constantine Manda, a doctoral researcher at Yale, argues that Makonda’s actions against LGBT people are intended to convince voters of Magufuli’s socially conservative agenda. That’s why commissioners are ordering the arrests of LGBT people and sex workers across the country; why Makonda banned pornography in Dar es Salaam; and why the Tandahimba district commissioner and others ordered pregnant schoolgirls arrested.

Until now, few outside Tanzania have paid any attention to the commissioners’ repressive or violent actions. But no more. Makonda and Magufuli are too closely linked for the president to escape responsibility. Politics in Dar is also more visible because of the heavy journalistic, diplomatic and NGO presence.

This week Magufuli declared that he prefers Chinese aid, which comes with no conditions — suggesting that Western governments’ traditional tool to pressure governments to protect human rights may no longer work. Will increased scrutiny have any consequences, or will repression continue in earnest now that the mask is finally off?

Rachael McLellan (@rachaelmclellan) is a PhD Candidate at Princeton University researching opposition parties and decentralization in Tanzania.