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Samia's response to Emirati port deal critics prompts backlash

The president's commitment to free speech is being questioned after the arrest of opposition and civil society activists who criticised the deal with the UAE

The government's heavy-handed response to critics of a controversial port deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has prompted condemnation from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In February 2022, the government and the UAE signed an agreement for logistics giant DP World to run the port of Dar es Salaam. The deal may be extended to cover other ports in mainland Tanzania. The contract is indefinite, and the intergovernmental agreement does not include a leasehold or concession arrangement. It is also unclear what remuneration, if any, will be paid by DP World.

DP World already has a foothold in East Africa, such as the Berbera port in Somaliland (AC Vol 59 No 5, Any port in a storm).

Opposition and rights activists warn the deal amounts to selling off a key strategic asset. Several dozen opponents of the agreement have been arrested while others have been threatened for criticising it, according to local civil society groups.

On 13 August, Willibrod Slaa, a former MP for the opposition Chadema party who later served as Tanzania's ambassador to Sweden and Finland under former president John Magufuli, became the latest high-profile figure to be arrested for criticising the deal. He could face treason charges.

Last week, the High Court threw out an appeal by a group of activists including lawyer Boniface Mwabukusi and opposition politician, Mdude Nyagali, both of whom were arrested after publicly condemning the inter-governmental agreement with the Emirati state as unconstitutional.

The response suggests that President Samia Suluhu Hassan's regime has not shaken off all the tools of repression used by her predecessor Magufuli. It raises questions over her commitment to allowing dissent and opposition parties to operate freely.

The government and ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party officials insist that the ports agreement is not set in stone. Yet it was approved by parliament in June where CCM MPs insist the host government and lease agreement will ensure beneficial terms.

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