Tanzanian authorities claim to be intensifying their crack down on the illegal drug trade, but critics – including some in the government – say that the approach is targeting people who use drugs rather than those involved in trafficking.
“In this war against narcotics, no one is too prominent to be arrested even if they are politicians, security officers, cabinet ministers or the child of a prominent person”, Tanzanian President John Magufuli said on February 6, in a speech to security forces.
“Even if it is my wife dealing in drugs she should face the music", he added.
Although there have been no legislative changes, Tanzania has been intensifying its drug war implementation, and the president is one of many leading officials to publicly show his support. Magufuli’s claim that no one is exempt from the country’s drug policy was exemplified earlier in February, when authorities appeared to be making an example of high-profile individuals.
Wema Sepetu, winner of the 2006 Miss Tanzania contest, was arrested for cannabis possession last week. Several famous hip hop artists were subsequently summoned by authorities for alleged, but unspecified, drug offences.
This highly-publicised approach has created controversy in the east African nation.
Government minister Nape Nnauye criticised the targeting of celebrities, arguing that "most of these listed are victims of drug use".
“They are as sick as other victims of drug abuse; the difference is that they have big names and we all know them,” Nnauye proclaimed.
Authorities hinted at prosecuting more powerful people in the drug trade by arresting 17 police officers for alleged involvement with drugs, however, those who use drugs appear to be the primary target.
Indeed, one prominent official hopes to create a list of all people in Tanzania who use illegal drugs.
Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner, Paul Makonda, told a press conference on February 7 that he had instructed all local leaders to provide the government with a list of "drug addicts and peddlers" within a week, The Citizen reports. He threatened unspecified consequences to leaders who did not provide an exhaustive list of people who use drugs in their jurisdiction.
Makonda also called on the parents of people with problematic drug use to report their children.
MP Esther Bulaya, a shadow minister with responsibility for drug control, denounced the approach as a “publicity stunt”, and criticised Makonda personally for “going after small fish and addicts”.
"These addicts that Makonda is going after are just victims, they need our help. They need to be on methadone”, she added, “the war should target barons".
Indeed, Tanzania and other parts of east African have become increasingly used in the transit of heroin from Afghanistan to Europe and beyond.
Despite being geographically far from both the origin and primary destination of heroin, Tanzania experienced a surge in heroin trafficking between 2008 and 2013. This was largely due to the poorly-policed nature of the country’s coastline, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports.
This increase in heroin flowing through the country is anecdotally alleged to have led to a rise in people with problematic heroin use, of which there were around 25,000 in 2013.
As TalkingDrugs reported in 2014, the country's implementation of a methadone programme has been highly successful at reducing the harms of this problematic heroin use. Current data, however, is unavailable.
In 2016, Tanzania hosted the Regional High Level Policy Dialogue Meeting on HIV and Harm Reduction in Eastern Africa, where MPs from several countries signed the Arusha declaration calling for “the scale-up, strengthening and funding of harm reduction services for people who use drugs across Eastern Africa, as well as the creation of enabling policy environments under which these evidence-based services can operate and achieve their potential impacts”.
The on-going crackdown on, and stigmatisation of, people who uses drugs appears to marks a step backwards in Tanzania’s previously health-focused approach.