US vice president enters the fray over democracy with visit to Tanzania

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By Associated Press

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday encouraged Tanzania’s fragile progress toward a more inclusive government, stepping onto the front lines of America’s push to strengthen democracy in Africa as part of her weeklong trip to the continent.

Standing alongside Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania’s first female president, Harris cited recent decisions from Tanzania such as lifting a ban on opposition rallies and encouraging more press freedom as “important and meaningful steps” toward democratic reforms. Hassan has undone some of Tanzania’s more oppressive policies even though she came to power as a member of the ruling party.

“You have been a champion in the sense of democratic reforms in this country, and in that way have expanded our partnership,” Harris said.

Hassan noted Tanzania’s participation in a virtual summit on democracy hosted by the White House this week, saying it “sends a clear message that the fathers of democracy recognize our efforts in building a democratic nation.”

The Tanzanian leader is finishing out the term of President John Magufuli, who earned a reputation for stamping out dissent, arresting critics and forcing them into exile, before he died in office. Hard-liners have been uncomfortable with some of Hassan’s changes, however, which could cost her in the next election two years from now.

The meeting between Hassan and Harris, the first woman to be America’s vice president, was a noteworthy show of support from the United States as it deepens its outreach to Africa. Harris announced $560 million in U.S. assistance for Tanzania, some of which will require congressional approval. The money is intended to expand the countries’ trade relationship, as well as encourage democratic governance.

“There’s so much excitement here, and people are saying it’s like madam president’s efforts in changing the country are being rewarded with recognition from an economic and political superpower that is the U.S.,” said Tanzania-based analyst Mohamed Issa Hemed.

America’s push on democracy is a delicate issue here. Washington has backed African dictators when it believes doing so serves U.S. interests and that has led to accusations of hypocrisy. In addition, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol raised questions over whether democracy remains secure even in the world’s most powerful country.

When the U.S. promotes democracy, it risks a backlash from Africans who sense paternalism in the approach. Some African leaders also see the issue as a backdoor effort to meddle in their internal affairs and strengthen opposition politicians. They note that China asks no such questions about democracy when its looking to cut lucrative deals in Africa.

Harris has emphasized the issue during her trip, particularly during her previous stop in Ghana, one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

During a news conference with Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo this week, Harris quoted the president’s words in a recent speech that “it is important we never forget that democracy is not a static achievement, but a promise that needs continuous nurturing.”

Harris agreed, saying “there is a duality when it comes to democracies” because they are “an exhibition of strength and they are fragile.”

The time with Tanzania’s Hassan provided Harris with another opportunity to highlight women’s issues in Africa, something she’s done repeatedly over the course of her trip. During her previous stop in Ghana, Harris met with female entrepreneurs and said women need leadership opportunities.

The future, Harris said, should be a place “where women are not just treated equally but are able to thrive.”

“These conversations are very important,” she said at the Mix Design Hub, a modern building that features a restaurant, an art gallery and a co-working space. “Because the well-being of women will be a reflection of the well-being of all of society.”

Hassan described her meeting with Harris was “another milestone” and would be an “inspiration and a testimony to Tanzanian young girls.”

After her meeting with Hassan, Harris visited a memorial to the U.S. Embassy bombing in Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998 — the day a simultaneous bombing took place in Kenya. At the memorial, called “Hope Out of Sorrow,” Harris shook hands with staff who were present during the attack in Dar es Salaam, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from that time, Charles Stith.

Harris paused in front of the memorial, where there was a wreath adorned with white flowers, to pay her respects.

“Thank you all for a continued life of service,” Harris told embassy staff. The bombing in Tanzania killed 12 people and wounded 77.

Harris arrived in Tanzania late Wednesday, and she will conclude her weeklong trip with a stop in Zambia, another country that is striving to strengthen its democracy. She plans to return to Washington on Sunday.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria, said Harris’ visit can help galvanize enthusiasm when there are concerns over backsliding into authoritarianism in Africa and around the world.

“Many people will want the U.S. to speak to the issue of democracy, which they feel is beginning to decline and is not what it used to be,” she said. “There are more that need to be assured that democracy is here to stay.”

Like Tanzania, Zambia has made uneven steps toward democracy since its independence. But there has been a burst of hope after the country elected Hakainde Hichilema, a former opposition leader who once faced charges of treason.

Zambia has since decriminalized defamation of the president, a law that was used to stifle opposition. It’s also serving as a co-host of President Joe Biden’s democracy summit.

Hichilema warned this week that economic progress is necessary to sustain open societies. “You can’t eat democracy,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “Human rights may sustain the spirit but not the body.”