Tanzanian government’s side hustle as the morality police may yield damaging returns

While many African nations are still grappling with the concept of protecting the human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, and criminalising homosexual relations with jail terms, Tanzania is imposing strict consequences on public displays of affection among even heterosexual couples.

Tanzanian artiste Vanessa Mdee and her musician boyfriend Juma Jux have been moving from stage to stage as part of their In Love and Money music tour across Tanzania, which has seen venues filled to the brim. Their recent performance, however, seems to have landed them in trouble with the Tanzanian government after a social media post saw the couple share a passionate kiss while kneeling down on stage at a concert last weekend, resulting in the crowd erupting in a deafening cheer.

This is a serious breach, according to President John Magufuli’s government whose strict regulations has seen other artists caught in the quagmire. In spite of the positive comments fans gave on social media, Tanzania’s Communication Regulatory (Basata) Chief Executive Godfry Mngereza said that the picture was provocative, therefore they will not turn a blind eye.

Diamond Platnumz performs at a concert

It is not clear what action will be taken against both artistes, but this is not the first time an incident like this has occurred, with the commission insisting that any artists, and anyone really, caught posting sexually suggestive photos on their social media will be hunted down for the sake of upholding “morality”— part of a growing trend of African governments trying to control what is said online.

Two musicians had previously been detained after they posted video clips deemed obscene by the Tanzanian authorities. Award-winning 28-year old singer Naseeb Abdul, whose stage name is Diamond Platnumz, was arrested in April after sharing a video clip with his 4.5 million followers on Instagram that showed him kissing a girl. The artist, some of whose songs have also been banned by the government, rendered an apology for posting the video which was deleted after his arrest.

Another local musician, 26-year old Faustina Charles—popularly known as Nandy—was also arrested for a video clip of herself and another musician that went viral on WhatsApp that the authorities considered “indecent”. Nandy was questioned and also apologized for it. Slammed with criminal charges, if convicted, the singers were faced with at least 5 million shillings ($2,200) or a prison sentence of a minimum of 12 months or both.

Though laws governing moral and sexual issues have long been in place, their enforcement was fairly relaxed under the more liberal government of Magufuli’s predecessor, Jakaya Kikwete, who retired as president in 2015 after a 10-year rule.

The socially conservative stance of the East African country has been on the increase since the election of President John Magufuli in late 2015. Since March, regulations have tightened on online content and arrests have been carried out in a misguided attempt to curb “moral decadence” with the backings of a vaguely worded law that seems to require almost anyone who publishes content online in the country to buy a licence for 2.1m Tanzanian shillings (around $900).

This has led to citizens struggling for basic freedom such as the right to express themselves. There is also a decline in the country’s creative output and artistic expression, even as the discussions on what is or isn’t indecent is left to the government to decide.

Magufuli caused an outcry among campaigners in June 2017 when he voiced support for a ban on pregnant girls and teenage mothers in state schools, describing their behavior as “immoral”. But Magufuli didn’t start out being negative. He began with a 96 per cent approval rating in 2016, just days after his inauguration in his effort to curb corruption, pulling funds intended for Independence Day celebrations and redirecting them to anti-cholera operations while also kick-starting an audit of the public payroll which led to a purge of “ghost workers”. However, the Tanzanian President’s popularity rating has since plummeted by 16 per cent from 71 per cent in 2017 to 55 per cent this year, according to the latest Twaweza report.

The number of internet users in Tanzania rose 16 percent in 2017 to 23 million, in a nation of around 52 million people. And with this increase, the repercussion of a crackdown on expression—especially of intimacy—may be realised sooner than later. 65 civil society groups from across the world have already expressed deep concern over the worrying decline in respect for human rights in Tanzania in an open letter. Recently, six human rights groups, media platforms and independent publishers filed a case against the rule in Tanzania’s high court.

While citizens in Kenya and Nigeria have successfully defeated similar legislation in the past, countries like Uganda have moved ahead with censoring expression on the internet. And the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Ethiopia has restricted internet access at one point or another in recent history.

Authoritarianism is not new in Tanzania. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) – or the Revolutionary Party – and its forerunner have been in power since independence. They tend to maintain a high level of control politically. Yet, this latest clampdown is a troubling sign for citizen rights in Tanzania as one can only imagine what violence or unrest is waiting to erupt when censorship includes basic sexual expression and intimacy. Worse still, if this becomes a popular trend among other African countries.