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Home » How to Fight for Democracy in the Shadow of Autocracy: Fatma Karume (Transcript)

How to Fight for Democracy in the Shadow of Autocracy: Fatma Karume (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of human rights advocate Fatma Karume’s talk titled “How to Fight for Democracy in the Shadow of Autocracy” at TED 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The two most commonly used words to describe Tanzania until 2016 were “peaceful” and “poor.” From 1992, when Tanzania transformed from a single-party autocracy to a multi-party democracy, we became known as a “transitioning democracy with a lot of potential.” That is a polite euphemism for an authoritarian state that does not commit atrocities against its people and allows a modicum of controlled opposition. I was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and in the late 1990s I became a corporate litigator.

By 2007, I was successful and had reported cases under my belt. I knew that a transitioning democracy is nothing more than camouflage. So along with my practice, I had a weekly unpaid column in a daily English paper in which I espoused the importance of democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedoms.

The Rise of John Pombe Magufuli

I was chugging along nicely, raising a family, working hard and contributing to public awareness. Until late 2015, when a man named John Pombe Magufuli, also known as “the bulldozer,” became president. Under him, Tanzania reverted to full-blown autocracy.

My anxiety spiked knowing that my life, and that of many others in Tanzania, was about to be turned upside-down. My peaceful daily life quickly turned into horror. Every day for four years, from 2017 to 2021, I lived a personal nightmare which was played out on the public arena.

Personal Trials and Tribulations

My office was bombed, a client and friend was shot 16 times, friends and colleagues were arrested and imprisoned without due process, others disappeared, some were maimed. And I became the target of a state-sponsored, press smear campaign. And the state eventually unlawfully disbarred me from practicing my profession.

My self-image had become so enmeshed with my profession that I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I had to rediscover who I was. But what kept me going through those four years was one, knowing that my belief in agency and free will for the people of Tanzania was echoed by millions of others.

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