Zitto Kabwe.

© Emmanuel Herman/Reuters

Members of Tanzania’s ruling party have lashed out at a senior opposition politician, Zitto Kabwe, for his criticism of a controversial US$500 million World Bank education loan.

On January 30, the World Bank board of directors postponed their vote on the loan after Kabwe, a leader of the Alliance for Change (ACT) Wazalendo party, and a group of Tanzanian organizations separately wrote to the bank opposing the loan. They expressed concerns that the loan, which aimed to expand girls’ access to secondary schooling despite the government failing to lift its education ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers, would contribute to worsening gender inequality and human rights in Tanzania.

In Parliament the following day, Speaker Job Ndugai, a member of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, called Kabwe’s letter “treasonous.” Abdallah Bulembo, a CCM Member of Parliament, said that Kabwe, who was out of the country at the time, “should not be allowed back but should be killed where he is.” Kenani Kihongosi, a CCM youth leader, later said during a rally that people like Kabwe who “undermine” the country should be killed. CCM has not publicly condemned any of these statements.

These threats by CCM members reflect a sharp backslide in respect for freedom of expression in Tanzania. Since 2015, the government has cracked down on perceived critics by arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting journalists, rights activists, and opposition politicians. In 2019, Parliament restricted the independent operation of political parties in an apparent attempt to control the opposition. 

Kabwe has been arrested several times before for his views, including in 2017 for contradicting government statistics. In October 2018, he was jailed for alleging that several people were killed during clashes between pastoralists and police. In June 2019, he was arrested and blocked from leaving the country, and this January, police blocked a rally by his party in Kigoma, citing security reasons.

As the country gears up for elections later this year, the government crackdown on its critics has intensified. The government should instead be sending the message that it supports the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed in Tanzania’s constitution and international law.