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Why Tanzania is envious of Kenya’s election

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In our series of letters from African writers, Tanzanian journalist Sammy Awami suggests that his country could see Kenya as its political role-model.

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Tanzanians have been peering into their neighbour's compound – Kenya – with a mixture of admiration and envy following a successful election and this week's transfer of power from President Uhuru Kenyatta to his ally-turned foe, William Ruto.

We could not help but watch with green-eyed disbelief as Kenya's electoral commission chairman demonstrated his independence by declaring Mr Ruto the winner, and the Supreme Court upheld his victory despite the fact that then-President Kenyatta had backed his rival, Raila Odinga.

Although four members of the election commission disowned the result and Mr Odinga alleged widespread fraud, the Supreme Court ruled that Mr Ruto won in a free and fair contest – a verdict that most Kenyans seem to have accepted.

Tanzania's ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which has been in power for more than half a century, must have been equally astounded that the result went against Mr Odinga.

Ahead of Tanzania's 2015 general election, then-CCM publicity and ideology secretary Nape Nnauye promised his party would win the elections by all means – even with a "handball goal" if necessary.

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In the election five years later, then-CCM general secretary Bashiru Ally suggested it was ludicrous for the party not to use incumbency to its advantage, and referred to the fate of parties in Kenya and Zambia that had lost power after the advent of multi-party democracy to make his point.

"If you fail to use that advantage, you'll be like Kanu [Kenya African National Union]. When Kanu failed to use that advantage it never went back to power. Or Zambia's Unip [United National Independence Party]. You take the state, and then you use the state to remain in power," Mr Ally said.

In Tanzania, a CCM endorsement almost guarantees victory for a candidate – sometimes without a contest.

In the 2020 general election, numerous opposition candidates for parliamentary seats were disqualified on what they believed were dubious grounds, paving the way for 18 CCM candidates to win unopposed.

This photo made on January 5, 2011 shows Josephine Slaa, wife of an anti-graft campaigner, Wilbrod Slaa, a presidential contender who emerged second after Tanzania's re-elected President, Jakaya Kikwete, bleeding from a gash on her head after she was attacked by anti-riot police during a peaceful demonstration by supporters of the main opposition party CHADEMAGetty Images

Our wonder at the Kenyan election process began long before polling day. We wondered, for instance, how it was possible for opposition candidates to pick up their registration forms, return them to the electoral body and, in most cases, have them approved smoothly?

In Tanzania, many candidates would find the election offices, rather suspiciously, closed before they had a chance to submit their forms.

Some candidates would have their homes broken into by "watu wasiojulikana" (unknown people), or they would end up with broken limbs before they could make their journey to the offices of the national electoral commission.

The competition between Kenyan candidates to outdo each other with huge rallies was also something to marvel.

Four years before our election in 2020, then-President John Magufuli banned opposition rallies.

When the opposition were allowed to hold them just a few weeks ahead of the election, the rallies were often disrupted by security officers who intimidated and arrested activists and leaders.

At one rally an explosive device was even thrown, again by "unknown people", into the middle of a gathering.

Another shameful contrast was in the use of technology. In Kenya, any citizen with an internet connection could download election documents in real-time to see results for themselves.


We struggled to imagine the head of our electoral commission being as bold as his Kenyan counterpart by announcing the real vote-count"Sammy Awami
Tanzanian journalist

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Here in Tanzania, digital elections were forcibly discouraged: at the last election, internet blackouts meant that texting was restricted, accessing social media became impossible without using a VPN, and even voice calls were difficult to make.

A defeated candidate does not have the right to challenge the result in court, as Mr Odinga did, let alone for the public to follow proceedings live on TV.

Here, our constitution states that the election commission's decision is final – not even our highest courts can overrule it.

We struggled to imagine the head of our commission – appointed by the president, who is also the leader of the ruling party – being as bold as his Kenyan counterpart, Wafula Chebukati, by announcing the real vote-count, even if it went against the CCM and its candidate.

We Tanzanians love to pride ourselves on being a peaceful and united nation. We also often brag about how, despite having more than 100 different ethnic groups, this does not define voting patterns, unlike Kenya.

When the late Mr Magufuli visited Kenya for the first time as president, in 2016, he openly flaunted this, saying: "If Kenya can get rid of tribalism, it would be the best country."

But in Kenya's latest election, ethnicity was less of a factor as Mr Ruto put the economy at the heart of his campaign.

So as Tanzanians observe the level of transparency and the extent to which Kenya has matured as a democracy, many are wondering whether the absence of tribalism is enough reason to accept a flawed electoral system.

We certainly shouldn't take the peace we have for granted, but the key question is: Does it require us to compromise on a free and fair election? Can't we have both? Do we need a trade-off?

What is clear is that the Kenyan elections have validated the demand of many Tanzanians for a new mother law, or constitution.

Even those of us who had not quite made up our minds about it now realise how instrumental a new constitution could be in building and strengthening crucial institutions, such as the election body and the courts, that are expected to operate without fear or favour.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan – who took office following Mr Magufuli's death in 2021 – has promised to address opposition demands that a new constitution be drafted, but there is no indication when this will happen.

Nor is there any sign that the CCM is prepared to loosen its grip on power ahead of elections in 2025.

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More Letters from Africa:

  • Kenya's new sheriffs shake up their towns
  • Why Nigeria's ban on foreign models won't work
  • The designers giving Kenya a fashionable name
  • How racism haunts black people in Italy
  • Why African leaders aren't left to rest in peace
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