DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA — DOWN on the beach here, men and women are bidding anxiously to buy fish from a recent catch to resell in local markets. A man pauses to respond to a question on one of Africa's hottest topics: one-party rule. In Tanzania, he says, it's time for a change. The economy is in crisis, people are suffering. The country, he says, needs the ``competition'' of ``two or three'' political parties.
Yet, as such voices join Africa's growing debate over multiparty democracy, doubts are growing about the sincerity of some African leaders to allow real change.
Tanzania's government, for example, is officially encouraging a debate over whether to allow more than one party. But a Western diplomat here suggests that President Ali Hassan Mwinyi ``has realized multiparty democracy is a song and dance he has to do to keep the money [foreign aid] flowing from abroad.''
Similar doubts surround the recent announcement by Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko that he will now allow three parties in the giant single-party state in Central Africa which he has ruled with an iron hand since 1965.
In a recent interview with foreign journalists, Mr. Mwinyi was asked if he favors multiple parties. ``We allow the people to discuss this by themselves,'' he said. ``It's entirely up to the people.''
But he declines to say how the views of the people will become known.
No polls are planned, and there will not be a vote on the topic in Parliament, says Ahmed Hassan Diria, Tanzania's information minister. So far, the ``debate'' has been limited to letters to the editors of local newspapers, and several government-sponsored public forums.
What may be under way is an attempt by the government to find a consensus on the topic.
The topic would not be so prominent in Tanzania except for the remarks earlier this year of the nation's first president, Julius Nyerere.
Mr. Nyerere, who is still chairman of the sole legal party, the Revolutionary Party of Tanzania (CCM), shook things up when he reportedly told party officials: ``I think the time is ripe for a multiparty state.''
Reading from his notes from that closed-door meeting, a party official said that Nyerere went on to say there was ``dishonesty'' and ``complacency'' in the party; that the party has become ``just a bunch of bureaucrats'' with ``no leadership.''
``To speak of more than one party is not treason,'' Nyerere reportedly told the officials.
That left party officials in an awkward position. According to a variety of Tanzanian and international sources, many party officials depend on their positions not only for jobs, but as a source of corruptly acquired income and benefits.
``Some Tanzanians behave in a very negative way toward their country,'' says a member of the National Executive Committee of Tanzania's sole party. ``There is no nationalism in most of us,'' the official says. ``Everybody wants to enrich himself fast.''
A United States official is even more blunt: There are ``crooks'' in the government, he says.
Some Tanzanian officials hint that a way around the formation of multiparties is to bring more democracy to the CCM Party.
``There is every possibility, if not of a two-party system, there certainly will be much more democracy [in the CCM],'' says Tanzania's information minister.
Only party members now can run for parliamentary and presidential elections. And the party has the right to choose which candidates are allowed to contest the final elections, regardless of the outcome in primary elections.
A Tanzanian official says this eliminates ``undesirable'' candidates. But critics say it eliminates anyone with views differing from the party leadership.
Tanzanian publisher Walter Bgoya suggests allowing anyone without a criminal record to run, whether a party member or not. He complains that the CCM Party is run from the ``top down,'' with little attention to the views of grass-roots members.
If the ban on other parties were lifted, at least one more party would likely emerge, says Mr. Bgoya. ``We're tired of being told what people can and can't discuss,'' he said in an interview.
So far few people have come out in favor of multiple parties.
But a Tanzanian businessman says people are afraid to stick out their necks yet, until it becomes clear the government is seriously considering change.
And there are genuine fears that having more than one party could lead to divisions along tribal lines. Tanzania has many tribes, but no one tribe is large enough to dominate elections on its own.
But the distribution of some anti-Christian leaflets in recent months has some Tanzanians concerned that two parties might become a Christian versus a Muslim party.