Tundu Lissu’s mistake was to start hoping.
Hope was not an emotion he was expecting to feel when he returned to Tanzania after three years of exile in Belgium. On the plane home in late July, Lissu kept thinking about how difficult it was going to be to unseat President John Magufuli.
He knew that Tanzania’s political opposition, of which he is a stalwart, has been relentlessly persecuted over the past five years. That the media has been muzzled. That the electoral commission is compromised and parliament neutralised. “There was every reason to think we were down and out,” he said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.
But then he got off the plane and thousands of people were waiting to greet him outside Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport. They were carrying placards and flags and shouting his name. And he thought to himself: maybe this time it will be different.
A few days later, he was confirmed as Chadema’s presidential candidate, and started campaigning in earnest. Everywhere he went, there were more people, in their thousands and tens of thousands, hanging on to his every word. The atmosphere was electrifying. He had never seen anything like it before.
“I have participated in these election fights since 1995. I have played a central role in these fights. And I can tell you without fear that I have never seen Tanzanians this happy or optimistic as during these months,” he said.
It helped that Lissu was enjoying himself, despite the relentless schedule and the long hours travelling. He is a career politician and exile was lonely. “Being able to go over the country, speaking to people, looking into everybody’s eyes. People tell me they are shocked by my resilience. But I was happy. Just mixing it with my people.”
Yet everywhere he went, his scars went with him, beneath his clothes: the 17 bullet wounds he sustained when unidentified gunmen opened fire on him outside his official parliamentary residence in the capital Dodoma in 2017. He survived, after being flown to Belgium for emergency medical care.
Now he is back in Belgium, in exile once again, and he can’t believe he was so naive. He no longer feels hopeful.
“How could we have expected less? How could we have entertained the thought that we could have a chance at a free and fair election?”
On election day, Wednesday 28 October, Lissu flew to Singida East, his home constituency in the centre of the country, to cast his vote. He returned to Dar es Salaam and waited for the results to come in at the Chadema party headquarters. But even before the electoral commission made any announcements, he knew that things were not going as expected.
“The moment polling started we knew we were in serious trouble. Our polling monitors were denied access. There were policemen bringing in ballot papers. There was violence in Zanzibar, which started the day before. There was violence on the mainland. We had reports of vigilante groups beating up people outside polling stations,” Lissu said.
“It’s difficult to explain. It wasn’t a shock; we had expected trouble. Rigging. Magufuli has been rough. But we did not expect this rigging to be on such a grand scale.”
Official results were announced that Friday. Magufuli won in a landslide, with 84% of the vote. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party —which has never been out of power in Tanzania — also swept up nearly all of the seats in parliament, including some that have historically been opposition strongholds.
The moment the results were released, Lissu’s police protection unit disappeared, because he was no longer a presidential candidate. He received two phone calls that day from anonymous callers. Death threats.
“They told me ‘we are coming after you and the orders are to deal with you once and for all’,” he said.
He found refuge at a friend’s house. But their neighbourhood was soon “flooded with suspicious looking people”. Wary of their own safety, the friends asked Lissu to leave after a night or two. He then sought protection at the German embassy, but issues of diplomatic protocol meant they would not allow him in at first. As he waited in his vehicle outside the embassy, policemen surrounded the car and ordered him to go to the police station. Fortunately, German diplomats followed him there.
While policemen were interrogating him — “Why are you planning a coup d’etat?” they asked, because he had called for demonstrations against alleged voter fraud — the diplomats were demanding his release.
“The fact that the German diplomats intervened took the wind out of their sails. Our security forces are always so scared of diplomats, especially Western diplomats,” said Lissu. “They are not all that clever. I don’t know who trains them.”
After being released, Lissu stayed at the home of the German ambassador. He felt it was too dangerous to go home, so his wife packed his bags and, on the evening of 10 November — exactly two weeks after the vote — he boarded a plane and returned to his lonely exile in Belgium. His wife had flown out ahead of him. His children are in the United States, staying with friends while they try to complete high school. “My small family has been dispersed around the world,” he said.
Looking back, Lissu cannot see how the election could have played out any other way. “Given what happened on election day, I don’t think the outcome could have been different,” he said. “Unless the people of Tanzania were to go into the street in their millions.”
“We have to learn from what we have done. What we could have done differently. Instead of telling people to vote, we should be telling them to prepare for popular revolt. To mobilise better, to take matters into their own hands.”
Others need to learn too. In neighbouring Uganda, opposition leader Bobi Wine — who was arrested while campaigning on Wednesday this week and remains in jail at the time of publication — is trying to unseat President Yoweri Museveni in next year’s presidential election, and Lissu sees plenty of parallels. His advice to the Ugandan opposition leader?
“To mobilise for rebellion. For popular revolt. These dictators will not allow themselves to lose an election. We have to find ways of toppling them in popular revolt. It is Tahrir Square. Magufuli and his ilk will not allow popular elections. So democracies will have to be built through popular power.”
This may not be news to Bobi Wine, who last month released a new song called Bullet or Ballot. In it, he sings:
“And if it takes a revolution, freedom will have to come/ By the ballot or the bullet, Let thy will be done.”
For Lissu, attention now turns to his own uncertain future. “I have to pick up the broken pieces,” he said. “I see myself working very actively internationally. Dictators have to be fought not just in their country but also internationally. The world should pay close attention to Tanzania.”