Africa’s Haven of Peace? Elections, Politics and Violence in Post-colonial East Africa

As I write, it is the 28 October 2015, and three days have passed since Tanzania went to the polls for the fifth time since the return of multi-party elections in 1995. Elections in Africa are always moments of high tension, and this election is no different. Today, the BBC News Africa page leads with ‘Tanzania poll crisis.’ Immediately below this headline is more information: ‘Zanzibar poll scrapped because of “rigging”’ and ‘Opposition calls for Tanzania’s entire election to be annulled’.

For many countries in the region, this chain of events is depressingly familiar. East Africa is no stranger to challenged elections. In December 2007, a hotly contested election in Kenya, which pitted Raila Odinga against the incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, led to violence after Kibaki claimed a victory that Odinga believed to be rightly his. While early results had suggested that Odinga was ahead, as counting continued Kibaki pulled in front. Odinga alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on 29 December the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner and he was quickly sworn in as President. In the violence which followed over the next two months, more than 1,000 people lost their lives and a further 300,000 people were displaced.

The magnitude of the violence that characterised 2007-8 exceeded anything that had been seen previously in Kenya. Nevertheless political violence had been a feature of Kenyan elections since independence. In contrast, mainland Tanzania, excluding Zanzibar, has been characterised by relative peace, including at election time.

How do we explain these divergent post-colonial histories? One answer that is often given is the different role played by ethnicity in the two countries. In the 2007 elections in Kenya, the election pitted a Luo politician, Odinga, against a Kikuyu President, Kibaki. The voting and the political violence that followed the election were similarly divided along ethnic lines. In mainland Tanzania, conversely, ethnicity has rarely played a decisive role in elections.

This is often seen as a product of Tanzania’s distinctive history. Ethnicity matters less in Tanzania, it is said, for historical reasons. Some cite the presence of a common language, Swahili, while others draw attention to the role of Tanzania’s first post-independence President, Julius Nyerere (an Edinburgh graduate), who moved swiftly after independence in 1961 to ensure that ethnically-based associations were removed from any political role, and devoted himself to nation-building efforts that aimed at transcending ethnic identity in favour of a shared Tanzanian national identity.

But the relative absence of ethnicity from overt political debate in Tanzania is not the whole story. On closer examination, another striking contrast between Tanzania and Kenya rapidly becomes apparent. Political violence has been used in Kenyan elections because parties know that a great deal is at stake, and that they have the potential to win or to lose. In Tanzania, in contrast, the nationalist party which won independence in 1961, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and which in 1977 united with the Zanzibar nationalist Afro-Shirazi Party to become Chama Cha Mapinduzi (the Party of the Revolution, CCM), has never before looked to be at serious risk of defeat.

Explaining political dominance

Our task, then, is to explain this dominance. On one level, the answer is simple. Julius Nyerere, leader first of TANU and then of CCM, commanded overwhelming support at independence and moved swiftly to establish a system of one-party democracy which made it impossible for a rival party to build up support. But this does not in itself explain CCM’s dominance. In other countries where political space was rapidly closed down after independence, ruling parties were eventually overthrown in coups, or their leaders removed by rivals. Why did this not happen in Tanzania? It may be because in Tanzania, the nationalist party did not simply close down political space in legislative terms, it also succeeded in monopolising political space in imaginative terms.

Immediately prior to independence, Julius Nyerere and TANU were able to link the demand for uhuru (freedom) to themselves as the only means of achieving independence. In contrast, in Kenya, two rival parties offered two competing visions of a post-colonial future, one a decentralized state, the other a strong centre. But what is perhaps even more striking is the way in which Julius Nyerere and TANU were able to respond to growing political criticism in the 1960s, once independence had been achieved and the fruits of independence seemed not to be forthcoming. They did so by setting out a new vision of the future.

This new vision of the future was encapsulated in the Arusha Declaration of 1967, which set Tanzania decisively on a socialist path. Where other post-colonial leaders were overthrown in coups or pushed aside by rivals, Nyerere was able to create a new narrative which put him at the heart of a struggle against illegitimate accumulation and corruption in politics, redefining politics as a moral struggle. While on one level the Arusha Declaration was a political manoeuvre, which shored up support and eliminated rivals, it also served to recapture and re-moralize public space, re-enchanting nationalist discourse in a narrative that put Nyerere firmly at the centre as author of the new aims of TANU.

The Arusha Declaration

The Arusha Declaration, published on 5th February 1967 after consultation with TANU’s National Executive Committee but based on ideas formulated by Nyerere himself, marked a bold shift. It announced that where TANU had once been open to all who wished to fight for Tanzania’s self-government and independence, it would henceforth be a party only for those committed to building a society based on the principles of Ujamaa (African Socialism).

Immediately afterwards a series of nationalisations were announced, along with “Education for Self-Reliance,” a new educational system which aimed to educate all in a way fitting to Ujamaa rather than focusing attention on an academic few, and a plan for rural resettlement and villagisation. A Leadership Code made clear that those who held political office must be fully committed to TANU’s objectives, and must give up any private or business interests which contradicted those objectives and placed them in the class of “exploiters.”

In the letters’ pages of the Swahili press, the Arusha Declaration was understood as an answer to the sorts of problems which had led to the fall of other African governments, particularly that of corruption. Links were sometimes explicitly made to circumstances in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, where growing criticism of corruption had led to the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. A letter that appeared in the newspaper Ngurumo lamented the great wealth which many politicians had acquired and asked: ‘where have they acquired this wealth if not from injustice?’  In Ghana, the letter writer declared, one of Nkrumah’s ministers had ‘bought a gold bed,’ and this bed had now been seized by the new government and would be sold. There were lessons here, he argued, for Tanzania, writing that ‘[i]f we have discovered this sickness, and we seem to have done so in announcing the Arusha Declaration and the policy of ujamaa, should we not also seek out this remedy? There is only one remedy – this property should be seized and the money which is received should be put into the Government purse.’

The Arusha Declaration provided a new language for attacking corrupt officials. Thus on 21st October 1967 an article entitled ‘Against Ujamaa’ reported that C.R. Chipanda, working in the office of the Ministry of Lands in Mtwara, in northern Tanzania, had appeared in court for the offence of having failed to pay his servant enough and for not having paid for insurance for him. While the defendant claimed that the servant was a relative, the judge asserted that “exploitation has many faces”, and that this was an example of misusing the principle of African brotherhood.

The Arusha Declaration succeeded in re-legitimising TANU through re-establishing its claim to authority, no longer simply as the party which brought freedom from colonialism but as the party which would combat corruption and ensure justice for all. It did so by harnessing a language of political morality, and turning it to new ends. That the nationalist party therefore succeeded in crowding out alternatives is a product of a successful ideological project as much as a project of state repression.


CCM’s ideological hegemony helps to explain Tanzania’s stability over the fifty years which followed independence in 1961. Yet although the 2015 elections seem, as this article goes to press, to have ended in victory for CCM’s candidate, John Magufuli, it is striking that this year people have been seriously asking the question: ‘Could CCM lose?’

There are immediate practical reasons that help explain why, over the last few months, CCM has looked seriously at risk for the first time since independence. A large part of the reason is that a former CCM Prime Minister, Edward Lowassa, switched sides and joined the opposition party Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party for Democracy and Progress, CHADEMA). Furious at being left off the list of candidates to run on the ruling party’s ticket, Lowassa deserted his party and was welcomed with open arms by an opposition that finally scented the possibility of election success with Lowassa as its presidential candidate. He stood as the candidate for the opposition coalition Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (the Coalition of Defenders of the People’s Constitution, UKAWA), which unites CHADEMA with three other opposition parties. So for the first time, voters had a straight choice between two heavyweight candidates, John Magufuli for CCM and Edward Lowassa for UKAWA.

But if 2015 does turn out to mark the beginning of the end of CCM dominance, the seeds of this change go much further back in time. If Nyerere succeeded in constructing a political discourse which responded to widespread concerns within Tanzania society and sought to provide an answer to those concerns, this ability to be all things to all people could only ever be temporary. CCM remains in power, but it no longer has a monopoly over visions of the future. And for this reason, Tanzania’s elections may continue to make headlines in the years to come.


Anderson, David, and Lochery, Emma ‘Violence and Exodus in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 2008: Predictable and Preventable?’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2.2 (2008), 328-343.

Hunter, Emma ‘Julius Nyerere, the Arusha Declaration, and the Deep Roots of a Contemporary Political Metaphor’ in Fouéré, Marie-Aude ed., Remembering Julius Nyerere in Tanzania: History, Legacy, Memory, (Dar es Salaam, 2015). [Publication forthcoming].

Hunter, Emma Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania: Freedom, Democracy and Citizenship in the era of Decolonization, (Cambridge, 2015).

Lynch, Gabrielle I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya, (Chicago, 2011).
‘Tanzania elections: could CCM lose to Ukawa’? 23 October 2015, <>,  accessed 28 October 2015.

‘Tanzania election: Zanzibar vote annulled over ‘violations’’, 28 October 2015, <>, accessed 28 October 2015.

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