Although the 1977 Constitution guarantees basic human rights, the legal framework in Tanzania is not favorable for civil society organizations (CSOs) and civic freedoms. The government has in recent years enacted several laws restricting the freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. Moreover, the laws provide the executive branch with overly broad discretionary powers; consequently, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and critics are often subject to criminal charges. These trends have accelerated since 2016 and laws have been adopted without meaningful consultation with civil society, the public, and other relevant stakeholders.
The roots of civil society in Tanzania can be traced to the pre-colonial period in Tanganyika in the 1920s. In 1922, for example, the Tanganyika Territory African Civil Servants Association was formed for securing the interests and welfare of indigenous civil servants. In addition, mutual cooperative movements and pastoralist movements were established to focus on land ownership and security. These movements eventually led to the formation of the associations that fought for the country’s independence in 1961. CSOs rose to further prominence in the 1980s after the government began to privatize and downsize the public sector under structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank. These structural adjustment programs sought to strengthen CSOs’ ability to promote accountability and counter corruption.
The number of CSOs increased more rapidly after the country shifted to multi-party governance in 1992. Moreover, the existence of strong and powerful religious institutions that channeled their social services to rural areas also played a role in the acceptance and recognition of CSOs by the communities they served. The liberalization of the political system and accompanying expansion of civic space resulted in the enactment of the NGO Act in 2002. Since then, CSO have generally been recognized as an important sector in promoting democracy, good governance, and development in Tanzania.