Tanzania: Social monitoring could hinder radicalisation

Richard Sambaiga

In its efforts to reach grass roots for political mobilisation after independence, the government of Tanzania organised communities in smaller units.

According to Richard Sambaiga, guest researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), this form of social control also detected security threats at an early stage.

After independence in 1961, the Tanzanian government intended to build a nation with engaged citizens, working together to ensure development and eradicate poverty. This was something the colonial government never had any interest in, so it was a project that was starting from scratch. One way for the ruling party Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) to reach and involve its citizens was by setting up so-called ‘ten-cell units’.

Social control

Each community and village was divided into units of ten households. The members of each unit chose a leader to keep track of everything that went on in the unit. For instance, if someone received visitors the leader had to know who they were and for how long they were staying. The unit leader reported to the party at a higher level. One aim of the system was to ensure political mobilisation at grass-roots level, but information also went in the other direction to central authorities.

“People did not view it as being monitored. In fact, the system was internalised and it became normal to inform everything to the ten-cell leader. The leaders were also mediators in conflicts between neighbours or within households. They were highly respected in the community, although without formal power or even being paid”, Sambaiga notes.

Multi-party system

The ten-cell units were completely shaped by TANU, in power since independence and renamed Chama Cha Mapinduzi in 1977. When a multi-party system was introduced in 1992, state and political party became two separate things. This also changed the function and structure of the ten-cell units. The ten-cell leaders ceased to be government leaders at the grassroots level but remained party leaders. Instead a local public servant was appointed to lead a larger unit of up to 300 households. Naturally, the leaders no longer knew as much about unit members.

“As a consequence of leaders having less overview of their units, information going from the communities to the authorities became less relevant”, Sambaiga remarks.

Growing radicalisation

It meant that monitoring in relation to security issues also became less accurate. For the last decade, incidences of violence have been reported in some pockets of the Tanzanian society, signalling a growing radicalisation in society.

“This was confusing for the authorities. How could extremist groups manage to infiltrate villages without people realising who they were? It would never have happened during the ten-cell unit system. Tanzania needs a similar security structure that collaborates with people at local level, but this time without the party politics”, Sambaiga concludes.


TEXT: Johan Sävström
Nordic Africa Institute