Tanzania deployed heavily armed police officers across major towns and cities to block anti-government protests called by a US-based Tanzanian social media activist.
The banned demonstrations – timed to take place on Thursday’s anniversary of the union between mainland Tanzania and the Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar – are organised by self-exiled activist Mange Kimambi.
“Those who plan to demonstrate will seriously suffer. They will be beaten like stray dogs,” Gilles Muroto, police chief in Tanzania’s administrative capital Dodoma told journalists.
In Arusha, an opposition stronghold, police arrested seven people accused of mobilising fellow Tanzanians to take part in the planned protests.
Kimambi has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where she describes herself as a “democracy activist, proudly Tanzanian”, based in Los Angeles. She fears being harmed by the authorities if she returns to Tanzania because of her criticism.
Television images showed scores of uniformed police in full riot gear patrolling several big towns, with authorities warning citizens not to take part in the street demonstrations outlawed by government.
Protests in Tanzania, even on a small scale, would pose a challenge to President John Magufuli accused of cracking down on dissent and freedom of expression since taking office in late 2015.
Magufuli warned last month anyone participating in illegal demonstrations will be met with the full force of the law, said his government will not allow its economic reforms to be derailed by unlawful street protests.
Kimambi is rallying Tanzanians via Instagram, Twitter and Telegram chat groups to take to the streets on April 26 to demand Magufuli’s ousting after previous demonstrations called by the main opposition CHADEMA party in 2016 were called off.
“They don’t have enough police officers to threaten and intimidate the whole of Tanzania,” Kimambi told Instagram followers in reaction to the police show of force.
The US embassy in Tanzania issued an alert over a possible outbreak of violent demonstrations, warning its citizens to keep a low profile.
Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, a prominent Tanzanian communications expert, wrote in a blog post government’s vow to crack down on protests only served to highlight Kimambi’s ability to motivate young Tanzanians.
“If a woman in Los Angeles can mobilise Tanzanians to demand their rights through a demonstration and to hold the Tanzanian government accountable, and government from the highest office to the head of police issue threats against demonstrators?, it goes to show the Mange Kimambi effect is real,” Sarungi-Tsehai wrote.
“We are all individually and collectively powerful as citizens.”