Sectarian Violence in Tanzania

UNHCR Helps Refugees Return Home

On May 5th, 2013, a new Roman Catholic church in the Tanzanian city of Arusha was the target of a suspected terror attack. St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church in the Olasiti area was hosting a mass to mark its official opening before it was hit by a blast, caused by a bomb that had been thrown into the church compound. Olasiti is a mostly Christian area, and the Vatican Ambassador to Tanzania, Archbishop Francisco Montecillo Padilla, was in attendance at the service. Initial reports indicated at least one death and over fifty injuries. While eight people have since been arrested – four Saudi nationals and four Tanzanian citizens – in connection with the attack, no organised group has claimed responsibility.

The disturbance is expected to have been the latest incident in the rise of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Tanzania. Muslim cleric Sheikh Ponda Isaa Ponda was arrested last year over attacks on churches, after rumours spread about a Christian boy urinating on the Koran. In February 2013, a Catholic priest was killed by a gunshot to the head, which occurred on the largely Muslim island of Zanzibar. Arguably the most alarming incident before Sunday’s bombing occurred last month, when police in southern Tanzania resorted to using tear gas to disperse approximately 200 Christian rioters, who were attempting to torch a mosque after an animal slaughtering conflict. This series of incidents could be said to be alarming for Tanzania, as it has typically been seen as a pillar of stability in the region, in comparison to its beleaguered neighbours, including Kenya. However, Tanzania did suffer eleven deaths after an al-Qaeda attack on the US embassy in Dar es Salaam in 1998.

Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete has demonstrated a resolve to bring those responsible to justice, declaring that ‘We are ready to deal with all criminals, including terrorists and their agents, who are based in the country or externally’. Condemning the bombing as an ‘act of terrorism perpetrated by a cruel person or group who are enemies of the country’, Kikwete has stated that terrorists were using all means possible to incite religious violence in the country.

The rise in sectarian violence, culminating in Sunday’s attack, has undoubtedly been unsettling for much of the Tanzanian population. For instance, Eliya Mbonea, a journalist in the Arusha region, described how residents of Arusha were in a grip of panic, accusing followers of other religions for the attack.

However, while Sunday’s attack and the rise in sectarian violence is certainly alarming, it does not appear that this growth will translate into widespread violence or persecution against one particular group. James Mbatia of the NCCR (National Convention for Construction and Reform) party, has stated that,

‘To the best of my recollection, there have never been any Islamic or Christian scholars who convened meetings and resolved to assault members of other religions. This is the work of crooks posing as Muslim or Christian fanatics, who have been fanning hatred among members of different faiths for their own motives’. This suggests that the incidents of sectarian violence have been carried out in isolation by individuals as opposed to organised networks. Secondly, the Tanzanian government is viewing Sunday’s attack as the continuation of a conspiracy by some individuals to increase religious tensions in the country. Minister if Home Affairs, Emmanuel Nchimbi told parliament on Monday that ‘the government warns that… it will do all it takes to fight whoever wants to introduce religious tension in this country’.

Additionally, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda has seemingly ruled out the possibility of taking legislative action that persecutes any particular group, arguing that ‘this is the time for all Tanzanians to unite and console the victims in indulging in unproductive politics’. This is reflected in Kikwete’s urge to followers of the Roman Catholic church in Tanzania to refrain from indulging in religious propaganda. He also counselled followers of all faiths to continue practicing their beliefs without fear. Religious leaders have subsequently praised Kikwete and his government’s handling of the situation.

Therefore, although the rise in sectarian violence in Tanzania is unsettling, it more than likely will not lead to an unstable political situation in the country that threatens any particular group.


Dan Browne