In the Name of Ujaama, Let Human Rights Activists Return to their Families

Allan Maleche

A protest march is taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday 24 October, calling for the release of human rights activists and lawyers who are being held in jail in Tanzania, unlawfully. Sibongile Ndashe and 12 other persons have become the latest victims of a crackdown on “homosexuality”, unleashed by and condoned by John Magufuli’s government in Tanzania. Their crime? Having convened and attended a consultation in Dar-es-Salaam between lawyers and their clients on the course of action in relation to government’s decision to limit the provision of certain health services that it had previously provided.

As detailed in the press release issued by ISLA and CHESA, the ordeal started on Tuesday 17 October when a legal consultation was raided by the Tanzanian Police, and 13 people among the organisers and participants were detained.  They were all granted bail though no charges were pressed against them. As a condition for the grant of bail, Sibongile had to surrender her passport to the Tanzanian Police. They were also directed to report to the Central Police Station on a daily basis, which they did. Then on Friday 20 October, the bails were revoked and all 13 were taken back to jail on account of promoting homosexuality—an offence that does not exist under the laws of Tanzania. As I write they are yet to be formally charged or presented before a court of law, yet it is the requirement of the law that a person is only allowed to be detained in police custody for not more than 24 hours without either being released on police bail or being taken to court.

Sibongile Ndashe is a former lawyer at Interights who founded ISLA, the Institute for Strategic Litigation in Africa. A regional non-governmental human rights organization, ISLA aims to develop jurisprudence before domestic courts, regional and international human rights systems.

I recall meeting her in November 2015 when she was in Harare for a meeting with lawyers and partners, on sexual and reproductive health rights litigation and strategy, ahead of the 18th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA). She was one of the early supporters of the new Tanzanian President, John Magufuli, actively using the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo. “He is the new thing that Africa needs,” she told me. She explained that Magufuli’s style of government signalled a positive departure from corrupt, lavish and honour-dependent African politicians. I was not surprised that Sibo would find Magufuli appealing. After all, she is a proud (South) African who grew up under apartheid, and was nurtured by the ideals of transformative, black consciousness that understands liberation as a political and social connection with and for the people. So as John Magufuli—the floor-sweeping president—styled himself the champion of the people, he could only receive acclaim from Africans such as Sibongile.

One may wonder what happened between November 2015 when Sibongile was praising President Magufuli, and October 2017 when Tanzanian police arrested her.

The simple yet complex answer is to be found in President Magufuli’s search for a modern vision of ujamaa (“familyhood” in Swahili). In spite of its challenges and coercive implementation, the political concept of ujamaa—coined by Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere—encapsulates social, economic and moral ideals of self-reliance that resonate today with President Magufuli and millions of people in Tanzania, and across Africa. The reform agenda embraced by President Magufuli to rid his country of corruption and cronyism and to obtain a fairer deal for Tanzania’s natural resources is legitimate and laudable. However, the flip side to these reform efforts has been a deteriorating human rights situation, marked by a crackdown on political and social dissent. Newspapers have been closed down, opposition leaders harassed and physically attacked, and lawyers intimidated. Easy scapegoats have been found in LGBT people, sex workers, and people who use drugs. Through a combination of moralist discourse and politically expedient “Africanism”, these populations have become the focus of intense harassment and negative media campaign instigated or supported by government officials. Ultimately, such targeting of a segment of Tanzania’s population violates the core value of Nyerere’s vision of ujaama that “people care for each other’s welfare”.

Sibongile, her two colleagues and their clients—all currently in detention—cared for the welfare and health of others. They wanted to bring their concerns and those of the people they care about to the courts of Tanzania for consideration and for a fair determination. In doing so, they were not promoting homosexuality. They were only challenging the blanket denial of health services and commodities that is contrary to the right to health, and that puts people at increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, whether they are men or women, gay, or straight.

The place of these clients and lawyers is not in jail, but with their families and communities. By keeping them in detention, President Magufuli’s administration is not advancing ujaama: rather, it is breaking familyhood.

Allan Maleche is a Kenyan human rights lawyer and Executive Director at the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), Nairobi, Kenya, an NGO seeking to ensure that the right to health is promoted and protected in Kenya. This is an abridged version of a blog first published on the KELIN website.