In October 2015, Tanzanians went to the polls yearning for change after decades of disillusionment and apathy. The elections were the most competitive in the country’s history since the advent of multi-party democracy in 1992.
The main opposition parties, in a show of unity, had merged into a coalition known as Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (UKAWA), an outfit that had organically formed during the constitutional review process. The UKAWA coalition fronted one presidential candidate, Edward Lowassa, who ran against the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s (CCM) John Magufuli. Ahead of the General Elections, competition and rivalry among party elites in the CCM, coupled with underlying power struggles and corruption scandals involving senior party henchmen, had placed the ruling party in an awkward position. The party was beginning to lose its socialist egalitarian reputation associated with Tanzania’s founding President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. With this background, CCM went on to nominate John Magufuli as its presidential candidate, noting his impeccable record in government and unique ‘no-nonsense approach’, attributes that had endeared him to the public. So damaged was CCM’s reputation among the voters that Magufuli was seen as the party’s symbol of change. His campaign theme was ‘Hapa Kazi Tu’ (loosely translated as ‘strictly business’).
The election of Magufuli as President of Tanzania was seen as heralding a new beginning for the country. Immediately he came into power, he purged the civil service of ghost workers. He adopted the fight against institutional corruption and wasteful government spending as his main governance agenda. In a raft of changes, Magufuli announced universal free primary education, cancelled Independence Day celebrations to save costs and cut down on foreign trips.
President Magufuli’s first three months in office saw a reshaping of the country’s civil service, government operations, recalibration of the country’s fiscal policy through cutting government spending and a renewed focus on government entities such as the revenue authority (TRA), the ports (TPA), the railway services (TRL) and the power utility firm (TANESCO). He shaped his administration by weeding out officials who were accused of corruption and sanitizing government institutions, which were saddled with graft and incompetence.
Despite the craze of the ‘Magufuli phenomenon’, his administration has been blemished by incidences of suppressing and curtailing rights and freedoms. In January 2016, Magufuli’s administration came under scrutiny when the Information Minister, Nape Nnauye, issued a directive halting the live coverage of parliamentary proceedings by the national broadcasting corporation (TBC) on grounds of ‘cutting costs’. The directive infuriated opposition legislators who saw this as a restriction of media freedom and the citizens’ right to information. The opposition have also accused parliament of bias and decided to boycott parliamentary sessions in defiance to what they termed as the iron fist rule of the Deputy Speaker, Tulia Ackson, a presidential appointee.
Magufuli has also restricted opposition political party activity stating that the opposition should ‘wait until the next election cycle’ in 2020. This restriction however does not apply to CCM. The main opposition party – Chadema – reacted by planning nationwide protests which they dubbed Umoja wa Kupambana na Udikteta Tanzania (UKUTA), an alliance for combating dictatorship in Tanzania. Chadema accused the president and his administration of violating the Constitution, national laws and international conventions on the freedom of political association and political activity. They also accused the president of governing by decree. Key opposition figures were arrested before Chadema momentarily called off the protests
A weekly political tabloid – Mawio – was also banned for alleged incitement, and in August 2016, two radio stations were also banned for ‘insulting the president’ and ‘inciting violence’. Several people have also been charged for insulting the president using the controversial Cybercrime Law 2015.
While exercising a strictly business approach on the mainland, Magufuli has failed to resolve the political impasse in Zanzibar. When Zanzibar was plunged into a political crisis on 28 October, 2015, the Chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) annulled the General Elections on the islands. The opposition party, Civic United Front (CUF), claimed that they had won the elections and that the annulment of the election was meant to deny them victory.
In his inauguration speech to parliament, Magufuli promised an amicable resolution to the crisis in Zanzibar and went on to meet with leaders from CUF and CCM. There was much expectation that Magufuli would broker a truce in Zanzibar. Instead, he has maintained CCM rule on the islands.In August 2016, he toured Zanzibar’s two main islands – Pemba and Unguja – where he heightened political temperatures with political rhetoric and castigation of the opposition. Zanzibar remains politically divided.
Which Way for Tanzania?
Different stakeholders in Tanzania have questioned Magufuli’s ‘one-man rule’. He has been described as a ‘one-man band’ whose approach signals ‘tyranny’. The president has largely been accused of personalizing his rule and not institutionalizing the reforms he is making. The opposition and civil society have also questioned the firebrand approach of the president saying that he needs to build institutions, which will then carry out and further reforms. With a stalled constitutional review process, Magufuli should finalize the process and build his agenda through the new constitution.
In hindsight a number of citizens and commentators have argued that Tanzania will benefit more with a ‘Kagame’ sort of leader – one who ‘delivers change through benevolence authority’. His opponents have accused him of ruling by decree, with government officials and security personnel adopting this approach. Magufuli needs to balance his ‘strict business’ leadership with building institutions while upholding fundamental rights and freedoms, in order to cement the agenda for change.
Nicodemus Minde is a PhD candidate at the United States International University in Nairobi. His research interests are in the political history of Tanzania and Zanzibar.