The digger and the bulldozer — Zitto Kabwe’s arrest

Zitto Kabwe at Kisutu Magistrate’s Court, 2/11/2018. Photo from The Citizen

“For a citizen, there is no patriotism greater than criticising your country’s government. The bigger patriotism is to defend your country, not the government. Your country.”
Zitto Kabwe

Zitto Kabwe is different. He seems to lack the restraints that hold many back. He has a fierce intellect that allows him to dig further and deeper into complex issues than others are able. He has an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy and determination that allows him to stay on top of ten different issues at once. And he doesn’t seem to know when it would be wiser — or safer — to stay silent.

He covers more political ground than anyone else in Tanzania — from mining and natural gas to agriculture, electricity, macroeconomics, political freedoms, tax law, political party finance, trade, policing, corruption, and much more besides. If you want to understand the crux of any of these topics in Tanzania, for the last ten years Zitto has been the person to listen to.

And on any of these topics, he will go further than anyone else. He will say something unexpected, something so outlandish that senior figures in government will deny and dismiss the claims with ease, that even his political friends will question whether he has lost his touch. People will laugh at him — there he goes again — until a little later, sometimes within days, sometimes after several months, his persistent digging will deliver conclusive evidence that what he had been saying all along turns out to be true.

He has done this very recently on cashew farming, and last year on national economic statistics, but the most obvious example is the Escrow scandal. Zitto — with others — spoke of massive corruption associated with the sale of various energy companies, of the involvement of very senior figures in politics. As chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in parliament, he dug and dug and drove an investigation through parliament that ended the political careers of several ministers and badly wounded the government and reputation of President Kikwete.

How ironic then, that President Kikwete’s successor, President Magufuli, not only built his presidency on putting an end to the kind of corruption that Zitto did so much to uncover — even (finally) arresting the two alleged masterminds behind the Escrow case — but also revels in the nickname “bulldozer”. Depending on who you talk to, this is either due to his commitment to getting on with the job, his determination to put an end to endemic corruption, or his approach to democracy and human rights. Perhaps all three. But that’s not the point of this article, because earlier this week the bulldozer’s police arrested the country’s foremost digger.

On Sunday October 28, Zitto spoke at a press conference to call for an independent investigation into the alleged killing of as many as 100 pastoralists by the police in Uvinza district in the far west of Tanzania, relating to a dispute over land. The police have acknowledged that two civilian deaths occurred, and the local MP, who represents the ruling party, has suggested the number may be considerably higher. The grounds for a thorough investigation are very clear: without one, the true number of deaths will probably never be known, and Zitto’s record is such that his claims cannot be dismissed.

Nevertheless, in response, three days later, Zitto was arrested at his home in Dar es Salaam. Having been held in police custody for over 48 hours without formal charge — despite the law requiring police to charge or release within 24 hours — he was finally brought before a court on Friday afternoon. He has been charged with three counts of sedition for his statements on the Uvinza situation — he denies the charges — and he has been released on bail.

In some ways, this situation represents the new normal in Tanzania. Cases and allegations of heavy-handed policing are increasingly common, constraints on political speech are growing heavier, and opposition politicians are becoming very familiar within the insides of Central Police Station and Kisutu Resident Magistrates’ Court. Zitto himself has been arrested before, almost exactly a year ago, as have Freeman Mbowe, Joseph Mbilinyi, Godbless Lema, John Mnyika, Tundu Lissu, Edward Lowassa, Halima Mdee, Peter Msigwa, Ester Bulaya, Saed Kubenea, Vincent Mashinji, all of whom are senior figures within Chadema, Tanzania’s largest opposition party. Zitto himself represents a different opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo, having fallen out with Chadema leadership back in 2013–14.

But this time feels different. Zitto’s wife, Anna Bwana, has said as much. In part this is because the last time he was arrested, it was merely for questioning official economic statistics; this time he was accusing the police of killing scores of civilians and covering it up.

Even more than this however, the difference is that last year, the authoritarian aspects of President Magufuli’s administration were still a matter of meaningful debate; since then, the evidence has grown stronger. We have seen the harassment of civil society, the media, and opposition parties, the ongoing closure of space for public debate, and the feeble (at best) police investigations into the attempted assassination of Chadema MP, Tundu Lissu, the disappearance of a journalist, Azory Gwanda, and the abduction of a prominent business leader, Mo Dewji.

Given all of this, we are reaching the point where it is no longer credible to argue that Tanzania still qualifies as a democracy, where the only possible defence of the government is the short-sighted argument that democracy and rights are luxuries that Tanzania cannot yet afford.

We can be grateful that the courts are still willing to stand up for the rule of law. The police asked that Zitto should be denied bail, in defiance of his constitutional rights. And those close to him believe the instruction that he should be arrested came from the highest authority.

One theory doing the rounds is that yesterday’s event at the University of Dar es Salaam is key to this — that those in power expected Zitto to turn up and ask awkward questions that would undermine the event’s carefully curated message and embarrass the guest of honour. It’s impossible to know for certain.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that Zitto will not be swayed — as others surely have — by his arrest.

If anything, this will make him more determined than ever. This digger will keep on digging. And talking. And asking the questions that need to be asked. He is a true patriot.

Originally published at mtega.