Fears of delays, sectarian violence as Tanzania prepares referendum

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has warned of sectarian tensions in the run-up to the referendum
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete has warned of sectarian tensions in the run-up to the referendum TZ govt

Tanzania’s referendum on a new constitution could be delayed due to debate over Islamic courts and practical difficulties, analysts warn, with fears of sectarian violence as President Jakaya Kikwete fears that peace is threatened.


Tanzania's draft constitution has long been mired in controversy.

The government has been pushing for a swift adoption of a new charter that would notably establish an independent electoral commission and allow Tanzanians to challenge presidential election results in court.

But the Union for a People's Constitution (Ukawa), a coalition of opposition parties, have called on voters to boycott the 30 April referendum, arguing that the constituent assembly committed gross irregularities when it adopted the draft legislation last year.

The referendum campaign has recently generated fears of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims.

"The threat to peace is high," Kikwete said in a speech at the weekend. The Roman Catholic Church, he added, is opposed to the draft constitution because the government has introduced legislation in parliament that would grant legal recognition to Islamic tribunals.

Khadis’ courts, which decide on family-law issues like marriage and divorce, already function in the archipelago of Zanzibar, where the majority of the population is Muslim.

The government would like to establish some of these Islamic tribunals across the Tanzanian mainland, the colonial-era Tanganyika.

Some Catholic clerics have countered that these religious courts should not enjoy constitutional protection in a secular state like Tanzania and there have been reports that some priests have been advising Catholics to boycott the referendum.

The church has nonetheless been measured in its criticism.

Tanzania’s Episcopal Conference (TEC) has simply said some articles in the draft constitution could lead society "in the wrong direction".

Political analyst Mwesiga Baregu, a former member of the National Constitutional Review Commission, worked on an early version of Tanzania’s new constitution.

"Some Muslims are saying that if the Kadhis’ courts are not implemented [under] this law that was promised that they will transfer their anger to the constitution-making process," he explained in a phone interview. "And the Christians are saying that if that law is passed they will use that occasion to reject the constitutional proposals."

The issue of the Kadhis’ courts has become so controversial that there is speculation that the referendum could be delayed.

"This country’s huge and only one region has been covered by the electoral commission," noted Baregu. "In my own estimation it’s not going to be possible to hold a referendum in April."

If the Tanzanian government pushes through the referendum nonetheless, he warns of dire consequences.

Lack of progress on the constitutional front "has even delayed investment decisions because most investors, especially in oil and gas, are waiting for the clarity of a legal framework," noted independent analyst Emmanuel Tayari.

He expressed his concerns as Norway’s Statoil announced Monday that it had discovered a new natural gas discovery in offshore Tanzania.

Church officials, including TEC president Bishop Tarcisius Galalekumtwa, declined RFI requests for interviews.

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