Since the election of President John Pombe Magufuli in 2015, Tanzania has implemented new laws used to curtail citizen’s rights to organize and speak freely about political issues, a new Human Rights Watch report finds. Many journalists have been arrested and one has gone missing, and media outlets have been shut down for reporting news that displeased the government. Opposition members, activists, and government critics have been harassed, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have faced deregistration.
For Wangwe, it started in March 2016, when, as a third-year law student at the University of Dar es Salaam, and he wrote a commentary on why he thought Zanzibar’s re-run elections were unfair and posted it on Facebook. (Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region in Tanzania).
One afternoon, as he was in his college dorm, he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize. The person claimed to be a business studies student who wanted help with a legal class assignment. Wangwe agreed to help him and asked to meet near the campus church. Just as he ended that call, someone else called him. Again, he didn’t recognize the number. The caller wanted to start a business and wanted quick guidance on drafting legal documents to register his business. Again, Wangwe asked the person to meet him near the campus church – he reckoned he would meet both people at the same place to save time.
When he got to the church, Wangwe saw four cars parked nearby. A man got out of one car and began speaking very quickly to Wangwe, greeting him jovially in an overly familiar way, barely letting Wangwe respond. Meanwhile, six men got out of the other cars one-by-one and slowly surrounded Wangwe. He saw their pistols and, trying to use humor to mask his fear, asked them if they all wanted to register their businesses. They told him they were police officers and asked that he come back to the station with them. He had no way to verify their identity.
At the time, he thought his arrest must be a case of mistaken identity. He wondered if they thought he was a murderer or an armed robber. Why did they put in all this effort and resources to arrest him – a student? He had heard of cases of people being abducted by unknown people. Was he being abducted? Would he ever see his loved ones again?
They took him to first to the campus police station, then to Oyster Bay Police Station in Dar es Salaam. He was held there for two weeks. During that time, many of his friends and family members, as well as fellow activists, visited the station and demanded that he be charged or set free.
The police felt the pressure. One night, they decided to move him further away, to Mabatini Police Station, an hour’s drive away, known as a rough place where hard-core criminals are held in crowded conditions. There was a permanent pungent stench, since detainees defecated and urinated openly. After five days, he was taken to court where he was charged with “publishing misleading and inciteful information” under the 2015 Cybercrimes Act – a law the government uses to silence critics – for his Facebook post criticizing the Zanzibar elections. He was denied bail.
Finally, he was taken to yet another jail – Keko prison in Dar es Salaam – and held there for a week. There, one of his law instructors from the university offered to represent him. Wangwe secured bail on condition that he would report to the police station every single morning until his hearing began.
The time commitment around his case weighted on Wangwe. He sometimes missed important classes and fell behind with his studies because of time he spent going to court or the police station to follow up on his case. His family was worried about him. Still, he believed he could win the case, based on what he saw as flaws in the law. Wangwe envied his peers whose sole focus was their education. Their lives seemed so easy.
The trial ran from May 2016 to November 2017. Several powerful witnesses testified against him: officials from the ministry of home affairs and the cybercrimes unit were all involved. Wangwe now believes very influential people got him arrested and, in the end, he lost the case. His sentence: pay a 5 million Tanzania shillings fine (US$2,185) or spend 18 months in jail.
He was devastated, but he paid the fine.
For the next few months, he wrestled with his feelings that the trial was deeply unfair and that he should never had been made to pay a fine for a Facebook post. The court’s finding just did not sit right with him.
In 2018, he decided to appeal the ruling at the High Court.
Fear crashed down on his family – especially his mother. Why would he bring the attention of powerful people down on him, she wanted to know? Did he want to attract trouble? The trial was over, she thought, and her son should get back to his life as a student. Wangwe kept explaining to her why it was important to confront injustice. Eventually, she was convinced and supported him.
In March this year, Wangwe won his appeal. The court ruled that the government would have to prove the authenticity and intent of the information posted online. Importantly, this High Court ruling would guide future cases at the lower courts.
This win fueled Wangwe to push for more, and he is now challenging the constitutionalism of the Cybercrimes Act. He finished university and is now a lawyer, government critic, and director at his local nongovernmental organization. Through his NGO, the Tanzania Constitutional Forum, he pushes for freedoms that are guided by Tanzania’s constitution, thereby protecting fundamental rights of expression, without leaving loopholes for the state to exploit at whim.
Looking ahead to the Tanzania elections set for later this year, Wangwe is challenging laws that could interfere with the independence of the elections process. In May, the High Court of Tanzania ruled in his favor and ruled sections of the 2010 Elections Act unconstitutional. He continues to monitor how laws are used to protect – or curtail – people’s rights in order to ensure that Tanzanians are not repressed by laws that should keep them free.