Tanzania deployed heavily armed police officers across major towns and cities on Wednesday in a bid to block anti-government protests called by a U.S.-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 – have been organized by self-exiled activist Mange Kimambi.
“Those who plan to demonstrate tomorrow will seriously suffer … they will be beaten like stray dogs,” Gilles Muroto, police chief in Tanzania’s administrative capital Dodoma told journalists on Wednesday.
In the northern town of Arusha, an opposition stronghold, police on Tuesday arrested seven people accused of mobilizing fellow Tanzanians to take part in the planned protests.
Kimambi has 1.8 million followers on the social media site Instagram, where she describes herself as a “democracy activist, proudly Tanzanian”, based in Los Angeles. She has said she fears being harmed by the authorities if she returns to Tanzania because of her criticism of the authorities.
Television images showed scores of uniformed police in full riot gear patrolling several of Tanzania’s biggest towns, with authorities warning citizens not to take part in the street demonstrations that have been outlawed by the government.
Protests in Tanzania, even on a small scale, would pose a challenge to President John Magufuli who has been accused of cracking down on dissent and freedom of expression since taking office in late 2015.
Magufuli warned last month that anyone who participates in illegal demonstrations will be met with the full force of the law, saying his government will not allow its economic reforms to be derailed by unlawful street protests.
But Kimambi is rallying Tanzanians via Instagram, Twitter and Telegram chat groups to take to the streets on Apr. 26 to demand Magufuli’s ouster 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 her Instagram followers on Wednesday in reaction to the police show of force.
The U.S. embassy in Tanzania has issued an alert over the possibility of an 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 earlier this month that the 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 mobilize Tanzanian citizens to demand their rights through a demonstration and to hold the Tanzanian government accountable, and the government from the highest office to the heads of police issue threats against demonstrators , it goes to show that the Mange Kimambi effect is real,” Sarungi-Tsehai wrote.
“We are all individually and collectively powerful as citizens.”