Tanzania’s constitutional review in limbo

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete used his 2011 New Year’s address to announce a long-awaited constitutional review, the first since Tanzania became a one-party state in 1977. Three years on, the process is now on the brink of collapse, mired in partisan gridlock and controversy over the status of the union between mainland Tanganyika the island of Zanzibar.

Current troubles aside, the constitutional review got off to an auspicious start. Shortly after the New Year’s announcement, Parliament passed the government Constitution Review Bill, and in April 2012, Kikwete won praise for his choice of appointees to the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC), the body tasked with drafting the new constitution. In June 2013, the Vice President unveiled a first draft, which was then reviewed by the constitutional councils of each district. In December, the CRC presented a second draft constitution, now subject to approval by a Constituent Assembly (CA) before being put to a popular referendum.

There is plenty to commend in the second draft constitution. It offers stronger protections for human rights, and notably women’s rights. It also incorporates a number of articles aimed at diminishing the power of Tanzania’s “imperial” president and ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). These include measures requiring parliamentary approval of presidential nominations, restricting recent party leaders from becoming House Speaker, and removing the ban on independent presidential and parliamentary candidates in general elections. These proposed changes accord with past recommendations by reform-oriented MPs, keen to transform parliament into an institution “with teeth.”

Such positive elements are lost, though, in the political storm that is now raging over the status of the union. This controversy dates back to 1964 when Tanganyika and Zanzibar, two former British colonies, joined to become the United Republic of Tanzania. The result was a two-government structure. The government of Tanganyika merged with the Union government while Zanzibar retained its own administration. The second draft constitution proposes to replace this two-tier system with a three-government structure, restoring the Tanganyikan government and replacing the Union government with a less powerful Federal administration.

Justice Warioba, chairperson of the CRC, defended the proposed three-government structure, arguing that it is in line with popular opinion and would address concerns over equal representation and resource allocation. CCM has long opposed this remedy, which would likely diminish its power. President Kikwete nevertheless responded to Warioba with a call for partisan unity. “The [CA] is the prime stage towards getting a new constitution,” he affirmed, adding, “The entire group should represent people and not particular interests.”

CCM and President Kikwete did not hold this line for long. Concern over undue party influence exploded shortly after the CA convened to adopt its Standing Orders in February 2014. Members fiercely debated whether to allow closed voting, which advocates argued is essential to the assembly’s independence. President Kikwete exacerbated these initial tensions with his inaugural speech before the CA, which he used to convey a partisan message in favour of a two-government structure.

That was in March. The situation has since deteriorated further. Opposition members have denounced the CA Chair for allowing CCM to dominate committees; mudslinging and vitriol continue to disrupt debate; and in the latest move, the opposition coalition, Ukawa, resolved to boycott the assembly pending reconciliation over the union issue.

With partisan clashes unlikely to abate, the current constitutional review process is beginning to align with a history of CCM-led, top-down reform. The opposition parties might have played their cards better, but the overriding impression is one of CCM dominance and presidential meddling. This situation casts doubt on the basic motivations behind the President’s New Year’s announcement back in 2011. Kikwete’s then newfound enthusiasm for constitutional reform came at a time when the CCM government was working hard to burnish its democratic credentials. The effort was richly rewarded with a state visit from Obama in 2013, during which he praised Tanzania for its commitment to good governance. Critical observers were quick to counter with examples of deteriorating press freedoms and human rights abuses. The criticism didn’t stick, though, and with Kikwete touting its progress before foreign dignitaries, the constitutional review was another score in the government’s favour. The review process is itself now tainted with abuse and threats, however. Partisan controversy aside, members of the disbanded CRC are reportedly being harassed by state security forces while Chairperson Warioba is under constant surveillance.

What started out as a promising reform effort has reached an impasse. The new constitution’s enactment was initially scheduled for April 16 2014, the 50 year anniversary of the Union. The jubilee date will nevertheless be imbued with a different kind of symbolism. Divided and fraught, the CA is set to adjourn on April 25 until August, leaving a question mark hanging over Tanzania’s half-century old Union.

 

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