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Tanzania: No Justice for Zanzibar Election Violence

One Year On, Beatings, Teargassing, Shootings Go Unpunished

A woman walks past a wall with posters of presidential candidates in Zanzibar’s town on October 24, 2020. © 2020 Patrick Meinhardt / AFP via Getty Images

(November 30, 2021) – The Tanzanian government has not held security forces and aligned militia accountable for killings in Zanzibar during the 2020 elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch research has found that at least 14 people died and 55 were injured, as police, soldiers, and armed men in civilian clothes teargassed and shot at crowds, between October 26 and 30, 2020. The armed men also arbitrarily arrested, detained, and tortured opposition supporters on Zanzibar’s main islands of Unguja and Pemba. Neither the Tanzanian central authorities nor Zanzibari authorities have acknowledged, let alone investigated, the full scale and toll of the violence, despite a public outcry within the country, and calls for investigations, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Tanzania’s authorities have not taken steps to ensure justice for family members of those who died, and survivors of the serious abuses that marred Zanzibar’s 2020 elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Tanzania researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The leaders of both Zanzibar and Tanzania should demonstrate their commitment to justice by ensuring accountability and compensation for survivors and the families of those who died at the hands of government security forces.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 people by phone between October 2020 and November 2021, including victims and witnesses, journalists, and opposition party officials about election-related violence in Zanzibar, the semiautonomous archipelago.

Around October 26, 2020, the Tanzanian government deployed an estimated 10,000 security forces to Unguja and Pemba islands in Zanzibar, just before Zanzibar’s two-day voting period on October 27 and 28. The residents interviewed said that security forces patrolled the streets, harassed residents and beat them, brandishing guns and chasing them away from public spaces, broke into homes, and indiscriminately fired teargas and live bullets. They imposed and enforced curfews, beating those who did not comply, and arbitrarily arrested residents, detaining some in unofficial sites for weeks. This climate of fear caused many people to flee affected areas across Zanzibar. “Those who couldn’t run were beaten,” said a 59-year-old resident of Nungwi, Unguja.

On the evenings of October 26, 27, and 28 security forces shot into crowds near polling places on Pemba Island, killing at least nine people, including a 16-year-old student and a pregnant woman. On October 28 the violence and the chaos intensified as Zanzibar Electoral Commission officials counted the votes and the “Mazombi,” a Zanzibar government-aligned militia group, chased and beat people, including those who came to witness the counting.

Almost all the witnesses interviewed said they did not report the killings because of the climate of fear brought on by the violence. Family members said when they did report killings to the police and other authorities, nothing came of it. One man said that the police fatally shot his 25-year-old son in the chest in the Kangagani village square in Pemba between 9 and 10 p.m. on October 27. He reported the shooting to a community leader and the police. He buried his son the next day, alongside two others who were killed that night. Human Rights Watch found that the police have still not taken any action.

The Zanzibar authorities also attempted to control media coverage of abuses by blocking accredited journalists from filming security officials and entering some polling places. Police detained three journalists covering an opposition protest for an hour on October 29 in Zanzibar City, Unguja.

On October 29 the Zanzibar Electoral Commission announced that Hussein Ali Mwinyi, of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, had won the election for president of Zanzibar and that John Magufuli, also of the CCM, had been re-elected president of Tanzania.

The only official acknowledgment of the killings came on November 11, 2020, from the Tanzanian inspector general of police, Simon Sirro, who told the media that only two people had died during “sporadic violence” on October 26 and that opposition supporters killed a policeman on October 28. He did not address allegations of police involvement in the killings

Human Rights Watch wrote letters to the offices of the presidents of Tanzania and Zanzibar, and to the Tanzania police force, to share findings and ask about the steps the authorities have taken to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by police officers, soldiers, and militia during the Zanzibar election, but has yet to receive a response.

Zanzibar has experienced election-related violence in the past, especially during the 2000 and 2015 elections. “Every five years, people are killed and maimed,” said a resident of Pandani, Pemba. “This happens every election, and always after the elections, we don’t sleep at home.”

Domestic, regional, and international human rights standards, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, prohibit the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. Such standards enshrine the right to a remedy for gross human rights violations. Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, security forces may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

“It is important to bring the cycles of election-related violence in Zanzibar to an end,” Nyeko said. “For this to happen, the Tanzanian and Zanzibari authorities should take urgent steps to rein in security forces and ensure justice.”

For more details about the 2020 election-related violence in Zanzibar, accounts from victims and witnesses, and recommendations, please see below.

Zanzibar's anti-riot police officers stand guard by a group of men sitting on the ground during an operation after the opposition called for protests in Stone Town, on October 29, 2020 as tensions rise while the results of the general election are being announced. © 2020 Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Governance, Police, and Justice Structures

Zanzibar is a semiautonomous archipelago consisting of several islands off the coast of mainland Tanzania. Zanzibar is governed by both the central union government of Tanzania in Dodoma and the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar (Serikali Mapinduzi ya Zanzibar, SMZ) in Zanzibar City.

Various security forces, as well as the Zanzibar government-affiliated militia, the Mazombi, were active in Zanzibar during the 2020 elections. The Tanzania Police Force and the army, the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), are administered by the central union government and operate in both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar. The Zanzibar Police Division is part of the larger Tanzania Police Force. Zanzibar also operates its own security forces, known as the “special departments,” “SMZ forces,” or the “Vikosi,” alongside the Tanzania Police Force. The Mazombi, or “Janjaweed,” are armed, hooded men in black civilian clothes.

Unlike the centrally administered police force and army, both mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar have separate Offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions that are responsible for initiating, prosecuting, and supervising all criminal prosecutions in their respective jurisdictions.

History of Election Violence in Zanzibar

In January 2001 Tanzanian security forces killed at least 35 people and injured 600 in Zanzibar for protesting irregularities in the October 2000 elections. During a re-run of the 2015 presidential elections in March 2016, Zanzibar authorities violently arrested opposition members, banned public rallies, and suspended radio stations. The 2015 elections and the 2016 re-run were further hampered by the Mazombi threatening and harassing civilians and government critics. Unidentified men, suspected to be state agents, also abducted and threatened a Zanzibar-based journalist for covering the 2016 re-run.

Neither the Tanzanian nor Zanzibari authorities have adequately investigated these abuses. The impunity for abuses by members of the ruling CCM party has thus contributed to the cycles of election-related violence, including the most recent events, in October 2020.

Security Force, Mazombi Abuses in Zanzibar during the 2020 Elections

Human Rights Watch found that during the 2020 elections, the Tanzanian and Zanzibar security forces, including the police, military, and Vikosi, as well as the Mazombi beat, teargassed, harassed, and shot residents on Unguja and Pemba islands, starting just before and ending just after the voting period. Some residents abandoned their homes and hid in neighboring forested areas for days or weeks.

“Some people felt they were not safe to return [even after the elections],” said a 33-year-old resident of Kangagani village, Pemba. “[We didn’t return home] for two months until the situation came back to normal, and everyone was confident to come back.”

Many witnesses and some victims’ family members said they did not report the abuses out of fear. “I didn’t report [his killing] anywhere,” said the relative of a man who was killed on Pemba. “First it was panic, we didn’t expect this to happen. Secondly, where do you report? Who will listen to you?”

Beatings, Break-ins

On October 26, 2020, masked security forces in unidentifiable uniforms began arriving in Nungwi village, northern Unguja. They announced an 8 p.m. curfew. Some witnesses said that they harassed people and broke into homes for at least four days, targeting young men for beatings. Police and soldiers caned anyone outside after curfew, including those returning home after prayer at about 8 p.m.

On October 27, the day set aside for security personnel to vote, people in Nungwi were instructed to remain indoors after 1 p.m. Witnesses said that Mazombi beat anyone outside after 1 p.m. From about 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on October 28, the day set aside for the general population to vote, a witness said, the Mazombi set up a makeshift camp in Nungwi, took several people there, and beat them.

“I could hear the voice of a man called Haji Hajibu,” said a 54-year-old witness. “He was brought here and beaten. He was stripped naked and told to go to a shop and find clothes.” The same witness said they had heard rumors about some rapes of women, but Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate this.

That night, Nungwi residents protested the repression by blocking roads with stones and burning tires. The police responded with live bullets. Meanwhile, the security forces and Mazombi continued to break into and loot homes and shops and to beat people. “Doors were being smashed and forced entries were being made,” a 59-year-old resident of Nungwi said.

In the Garagara neighborhood, Zanzibar City, security forces beat a 23-year-old man attending his shop, forced him to roll in a puddle of water, and humiliated him by forcibly cutting his hair with a knife.

Burning, Shooting of Unarmed Residents

From October 26 to 29, and again on November 11, numerous witnesses said security forces indiscriminately fired teargas and shot people in various locations on Unguja and Pemba, mostly at polling places, killing at least 14 people.

Throughout the evening and night of October 26, security forces shot teargas and live bullets at people who had gathered at Chwaka Primary School, a polling place in Tumbe, northern Pemba, after hearing rumors that CCM supporters had been transported there to vote. At around midnight, Abdalla Said Abdalla, 24, was killed.

A humanitarian worker described the chaos:

Many Vikosi and police started coming. Even the army. [The security forces] were firing teargas and bullets. Just for the sake of firing. Everywhere. We were on the main road and could see [an official] was issuing orders: do this, do this.

On the night of October 26 security forces shot people in the Kangagani village center, Pemba, killing at least three, including Asha Haji Hassan, who was pregnant. A 36-year-old witness, who was shot in her left thigh by armed uniformed men whom she believes were police and members of the Vikosi as she walked near the polling place at Kangagani Primary School about 9 p.m., said of Hassan’s shooting:

I saw the men [who shot Asha and me], they came out of the voting center, they came on the main road. I don’t know the number, but they were many. Some kneeled, came down from the car, and shot. I believe those who kneeled were the ones who shot at me and the pregnant woman.

A relative of Kombo Hamad Salim, 32, said that security forces in a police truck shot Salim in the chest about 30 minutes later as he sat with his friends on the playground of Kangagani Primary School. He died immediately.

In Garagara, witnesses said, security forces fatally injured a 73-year-old woman after throwing teargas into her home. At around 11 a.m. on October 27, six armed men, believed to be from the Vikosi, based on their uniforms, went to the home of Saada Ali Hassan and demanded that her family surrender the young men living there. Shortly after they refused, the men threw teargas canisters and a flammable liquid at the house, causing it to catch fire. Hassan was resting and recovering from an illness in her room. Her 50-year-old daughter said:

Mattresses were burning. Doors burning. She could not help herself. We had to try to help her, but we couldn’t because the fire was intense. It was very smoky. She was calling for help from her daughters.

A policeman unaffiliated with the Vikosi entered and pulled Hassan from the room. The armed men stood by and watched without interfering or assisting. Hassan had severe burns, so her family took her to Mnazi Mmoja Hospital, Zanzibar City, where she remained until her death on December 8.

Just after midnight on October 27 security forces guarding ballot boxes at the Mtemani Primary School, a polling place in Wete district, Pemba, shot live bullets at passersby, hitting at least three people, including a 16-year-old student, Massoud Salim Fadhal. His father said his other children saw a person in a black car instructing the security forces to shoot people outside the school.

Ali Kombo Omar, a cleric at a nearby Islamic school who cleaned and prepared Fadhal’s body for burial, said the body was still bleeding from a bullet wound in his back.

At about the same time, in Kinazini village, Pemba, security forces fired teargas and live bullets, hitting Ali Said Kombo, 28, who was with friends at a polling place watching the ballot boxes brought in for voting. His family did not take him to the hospital because they were afraid to go out due to the chaos, and he died several hours later.

“They were teargassing, using live bullets,” said one of Kombo’s friends. “I didn’t see the people, but by the signs and their cars, they were security people.” He noted that they drove Toyota Defenders, the model used by security forces in Tanzania.

Witnesses at the Vitongoji Primary School polling place in Vitongoji town, Chake Chake district, Pemba, said that at about 1 a.m. on October 27, policemen believed to be part of the anti-riot Field Force Unit, based on their green uniforms, killed Mohammed Khalfan Mjaka, 35, and injured a 30-year-old man in the leg. The policemen shot Mjaka about six times in his chest, they said.

The security forces’ violence continued into the morning. At 10 a.m. on October 27, police shot and killed Salum Ali Abdalla, 38, at his neighbor’s shop near his home in Kipangani neighborhood, Wete. A witness said that Abdalla tried to flee when two policemen stormed the shop. One of them shot him in the back as he ran and then attempted to conceal the evidence by rubbing dirt over the bloodstains on the ground. The policemen drove off with his body, which was eventually taken to Wete Hospital.

Two people, including a close friend of Hamad Shehe Ali, 35, witnessed his killing in Konde, Micheweni district, northern Pemba. On the evening of October 27, hooded, uniformed, and armed men, traveling in a fast-moving convoy of unmarked cars led by a police car and a Vikosi truck, shot their guns, causing people to run and hide. One bullet hit Ali, who was on his way with two other people, to Konde Primary School, a polling place, in the chest. A close friend who was with him said that onlookers carried Hamad to Wete Hospital, where he died.

In Garagara, Said Makame Ali, 18, left his relatives’ home at around 9:30 a.m. on October 28 to walk to the town center with one of his cousins. They encountered uniformed men clashing with people and firing teargas who chased them, the cousin said:

There was a wall we had to jump but Said couldn’t jump. That’s how they caught him. While he was trying to go over the wall, he was hit by a bullet. It was only one bullet. I saw him clutching his leg in agony.

Ali’s cousin escaped, but his family was only able to locate Ali’s body three days later at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital morgue. Another relative said he observed the injury on Ali’s leg and his body was still bleeding when they found him.

On October 29, at about 9:15 a.m., assailants shot Mussa Haji Mussa, 28, four times – in the chest, both shoulders, and one leg – outside his home in Nungwi. Family members took Mussa to the nearby hospital, but he was dead on arrival. One relative said Mussa had been sick at the time and would have been resting inside his home. He believes the assailants were government-affiliated security forces and had dragged Mussa from his house, then shot him.

Mussa’s family reported the matter to the police who, possibly fearing a riot, provided security at his burial. However, the authorities have not provided updates about any investigation into his killing in the year since.

After the elections, the security forces maintained their presence in most of the areas where abuses had occurred and continued to intimidate residents.

On November 11 security forces with the Kikosi cha Valantia Zanzibar (KVZ) division of the Vikosi shot Said Salum Suleiman, 34, on a street in Mwembe Makumbi neighborhood, Zanzibar City, as he transported sand in a donkey cart with his brother. Suleiman’s brother described their encounter with six officers before Suleiman’s death:

It was me who was negotiating with them. It was then that Said joined the conversation. They tried to stop Said from joining, but he said he was going to join to see what was happening to his brother. One of them said, “I will shoot you. Don’t come this way.” But he still insisted on following me. [The officer] just shot the bullet and hit him in the stomach, right on the navel. He died instantly.

Suleiman’s family later heard that the officer who shot him was arrested and taken to court, but they have not received further information about the proceedings or been called to testify.

Torture of Detainees

Three former detainees told Human Rights Watch that on October 26, hooded, armed men dragged them from their homes, blindfolded them, beat them, and drove them for about 30 minutes to a house. They were kept in a room there, regularly beaten, and warned to “stay out of politics.”

“The system was that before a meal, we were beaten, then provided with a meal,” a former detainee said. “They mostly used wires and hammers. We were hit with hammers on the joints.”

Six days before their release, the beatings stopped and officials wearing prison guard uniforms brought doctors who treated the victims. By November 15, 19 days after their abductions, all the men, except Ameir Ameir Soud, were blindfolded and dumped in different locations.

Soud, a 72-year-old well-known political commentator and government critic in Bwejuju, Unguja, was abducted while he was alone at home, his wife said.

A fellow detainee said that during their detention, Soud was taken to a torture room and never returned. Twenty-four days after Soud’s abduction, his family learned he had been dumped at Madema police station, in Zanzibar City, found him, and transferred him to a nearby hospital. His wife said:

He was in a very bad condition. His legs were not functioning. He had eye problems. He was weak. He told me that he was tortured. He said it was a terrible situation. I couldn’t ask more.

He died days later, on November 24, 2020, in a hospital.


To end the cycles of election-related violence in Zanzibar:

  • Authorities in Tanzania and Zanzibar, including the Tanzania Police Force and the SMZ special departments, should identify and dismantle any structures that enable government-allied militias to operate in Zanzibar, and close all unofficial places of detention; and
  • The governments of Tanzania and Zanzibar should demobilize all existing irregular security militias, including the Mazombi.

The international community, including partners of Tanzania, as well as the African Union and its human rights experts, should urge the Tanzanian authorities to:

  • Conduct credible, effective, and impartial investigations into the 2020 election-related abuses;
  • Make findings from investigations publicly available; and
  • Ensure that all security forces responsible for abuses are held accountable, in line with Tanzania’s obligations under international and regional human rights law.

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