Tanzania – President Magufuli’s first months in office

This is a post by Michaela Collord

Hapa kazi tu! Straight to work! Such was the slogan used by Tanzania’s newly elected President, John Pombe Magufuli, on the campaign trail. After nearly five months in office, Magufuli certainly has made an impression.

His anti-corruption campaign and no-nonsense governing style have sent his popularity soaring. At home, he is being compared to Tanzania’s founding father, Julius Nyerere, a figure of almost mythic proportion. Abroad, Magufuli has also won over a following, not least Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Long seen as an ascetic hard worker in his own right (albeit one with strong authoritarian tendencies), Kagame is now openly emulating his fellow East African leader’s cost-cutting zeal.

Other observers are more cautious, wondering whether this one-man ‘bulldozer’ can address Tanzania’s entrenched development challenges, many of which are deeply political in nature. Still more are concerned at the worrying signs that political freedoms in Tanzania are being suppressed.

Magufuli’s actions so far send mixed signals, some inspiring and others decidedly less so.

From sweeping streets to ‘bursting boils’

From Day 1, Magufuli has positioned himself as an energetic populist. He quickly made it clear his government would slash all wasteful expenditure. He surprised many by ordering an end to ‘unnecessary foreign travels’ for government officials, declaring that the $150m saved on air travel costs would be reinvested in road construction. He also cancelled Tanzania’s Independence Day celebrations, instead showing up in front of State House wielding a broom and calling on fellow citizens to participate in a collective environmental cleanup. Money saved from the scaled down inaugural ceremony for MPs’ was later diverted to buy hospital beds. Perhaps most surprising of all for many was that new beds did indeed appear and road construction is underway. At the same time, some are feeling the pinch. Restaurants and bars in Dar es Salaam are noticeably quieter of late, with many speculating that cash strapped civil servants are staying home after Magufuli put a stop to their paid meetings, extra fuel allowances and other perks.

Weeding out corruption, or ‘bursting boils’ to use Magufuli’s phrase, has been an equally important part of the overall campaign against government waste. Weeks into his presidency, Magufuli made a surprise visit to Muhimbili National Hospital, firing the Director and dissolving its Board. He also promised a crackdown on ‘big businessmen’, directing Tanzania Revenue Authority Commissioner General, Rishad Bade, to target tax avoiders. His Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, later showed up at the TRA offices unexpected and suspended Bade while investigation are ongoing into the disappearance of 349 shipping containers from TRA’s records. Senior officials at the Tanzania Port Authority, responsible for handling the containers, were also suspended.

Magufuli and his ministers, many of whom are seen as technocrats, have kept up the pressure with a series of high profile firings and reappointments. They have also expanded beyond government. For instance, PM Majaliwa has revoked ownership of large tracts of unused farmland, some of which is owned by highly placed political figures as well as businessmen. He has promised the land will be redistributed to local peasants.

On another front, the government is trying to push through a series of ambitious policy measures. In his inaugural address to parliament, Magufuli promised free primary and secondary education. The government is also pushing local councils to improve infrastructure to ensure enough classrooms for students. Magufuli has sought to further ease pressure on the average Tanzanians’ pocketbook by directing the state-owned energy-generating company to cut connection fees and tariffs, measures which should also incentivize more Tanzanians to connect to the grid.

Despite a succession of what look like encouraging moves, Magufuli’s style, which seems to capitalize on surprise, has left many wondering what the overall plan may be. So far, directives seem to come straight from the President or his ministers. In several instances, this approach has resulted in rapid decisions while consultations only follow after affected parties voice their dismay. Individual ministers and other government officials have been criticized for their seemingly imperious unilateral decisions. Opposition parties as well as the Commission for Human Rights have decried, in particular, the firing of civil servants without the due process to which government employees have a right. More recently, Prime Minister Majaliwa was singled out by doctors, who complain that they are being stigmatized as a result of his call to fire medical workers caught taking bribes.

There are also concerns about the economic implications of some of the government’s measures. On the one hand, revenue collection is up, the shilling is strengthening again after a precipitous slide and there is genuine optimism that corruption and underperformance amongst government officials is in decline. On the other hand, some argue that Magufuli’s policies could make for an uncertain investment climate, or else could lead to excess government spending.

Perhaps more serious than this, there is the very real concern that if Magufuli is to consolidate his bold gestures into a long-term, coherent agenda, he will need to ensure broad support beyond his inner cabinet circle. This involves taming the rent-seeking, factional tendencies within his own party.

Is his party with him?

Analysts argue that widespread corruption and economic stagnation In Tanzania have much to do with the internal politics of the long-time ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). In recent decades, competing factions have increasingly divided the party, hindering its ability both to control corruption and to implement a coherent economic policy agenda. As Brian Cooksey argues, ‘within the ruling party, the use of rent-seeing of all types to advance the interests of groups of rentiers intent on taking control of the party has heightened pressures to loot the public purse and natural resources.’ Hazel Gray meanwhile underscores how, despite CCM’s strong formal institutional and appearance of centralized authority, ‘neither the president nor any one particular faction could enforce its particular agenda within the ruling party.’

There is a possibility that Magufuli is well positioned to impose discipline within the party in a way his predecessors could not. For one, Magufuli’s path to the presidency has left him relatively unencumbered by the kind of political baggage that has hampered his predecessors. He built his reputation as a competent, largely scandal-free minister, who most people discounted out of hand during CCM’s hotly contested presidential nomination struggle. One major reason for this was Magufuli’s lack of a strong mtandao, the Swahili word used to refer to the opaque political networks behind successful candidacies within CCM. And yet he emerged the surprise winner after two rival factions, one headed by then President Jakaya Kikwete and another by his former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, dealt each other a mutual, knockout blow.

A second factor that could play in Magufuli’s favour is the exit, or at least temporary silencing, of the faction within CCM associated with Lowassa. After losing out on his nomination bid, the former PM left the party to become the opposition presidential candidate during last year’s general elections. Politicians who were known to support Lowassa, and yet remained within CCM, are now being made to denounce their former ally while others have been threatened with the prospect of expulsion from the party. Meanwhile, members of the Tanzanian business community who backed Lowassa now find themselves in a very precarious position, with some reports of businessmen taking their operations abroad. Senior officials within CCM have suggested that, far from weakening the party, the fall from grace of one of its strongest factions could actually help restore unity, at least temporarily.

Another important point in his favour is that Magufuli himself has made an accurate diagnosis of the political challenge ahead of him. When delivering his inaugural address before Parliament, he identified two obstacles to achieving his development aims: ‘leaders like us in here and crooked, deceptive businessmen.’ Unlike his predecessors, who have made similar observations, Magufuli is showing signs of actually following words with action, notably through his crackdown on tax avoidance. He is also set to take over as CCM Chairman later this year and, along with the reform minded Secretary General, has hinted at a political cleanup in the 2017 internal party elections.

Finally, Magufuli’s popularity since taking office also makes it more difficult for any political opponents within the party to criticize him openly.

Each of these apparent advantages has its downsides, though. Magufuli’s lack of a strong network coming into office makes him vulnerable as much as it frees him from costly political debts.  Discussions with some insiders have pointed to a potential isolation within the party, something which may not be helped by his tendency to appoint technocrats to key positions, or by his promise of an aggressive crackdown on political financiers and corrupt politicians alike. The purge of Lowassa supporters in the party, which former President Kikwete is leading, also shows signs of creating more divisions rather than restoring unity.

Ultimately, it is unclear how Magufuli—or anyone else—could do away with the entrenched cronyism that has come to characterize CCM. Since the 1980s and 1990s when first economic liberalization saw the party lose control over parastatals and then political liberalization cut its lucrative government funding, CCM has grown to depend on financial support from the private sector, which it then rewards through government tenders, tax breaks, and other kickbacks. This state of affairs is what has helped fuel party fragmentation across rival clientelist networks, as observed by Cooksey and Gray earlier in this piece. While Magufuli appears to have a window of opportunity to reign in rent-seeking within CCM, and deliver substantive development gains in the process, it is unclear how long his agenda can endure without a relapse into the old way of doing politics.

Political dissent under Magufuli

Whatever one may think of Magufuli’s development agenda, political tolerance and a faith in institutional checks and balances do not appear to be among his main qualities.

Regarding the opposition, Magufuli has been loath to intervene in a series of political stand-offs since he became President. Admittedly they were not of his making, but he showed no sign of wanting to contribute to their solution. Most obviously, he has refused to intervene over the political impasse in Zanzibar, which emerged following the decision by the chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission to annul the results from last year’s elections. This move appears to have been motivated by a strong opposition performance in the polls. A rerun election was held in Zanzibar on March 20, but with the main opposition party boycotting the polls, CCM made a clean sweep amidst record low turnout. In the lead-up to this latest vote, rumors spread of police violence against opposition sympathizers, buildings belonging to both CCM and opposition supporters were torched and a critical journalist was kidnapped. Many fear more unrest ahead.

Magufuli also refused to heed opposition calls for him to address the stand-off over the mayorial elections in Dar es Salaam, which the opposition accused CCM of trying to rig.

Regarding Parliament, concern that the government was trying to control the legislative body surfaced shortly after Magufuli took office. He nominated lawyer, who had previously served as Deputy Attorney General, to become MP. She subsequently contested and won the position of Deputy Speaker, despite no prior experience in parliament, bar a brief stint in the Constitutional Assembly. Many interpreted this move as an effort to install a government watchdog in the House. Tensions rose again after the opposition found its strongest members were kept off the most powerful parliamentary committees. It appears the executive had a hand in lobbying the Speaker over the composition of these committees. The opposition has developed a confrontational style in the house; however, the decision by one of the parliamentary chairmen to have the entire opposition side forcibly removed by the parliamentary guards was a further low point for that institution. The opposition standoff was triggered by a government announcement that the public broadcaster would stop live broadcasts of parliamentary debates.

In recent years, the Tanzanian Parliament has become more assertive. It has refocused the political agenda by helping to reveal corruption scandals and by strongly criticizing elements of the government annual budget. However, as one CCM MP noted, ‘I don’t think the President is going to be so submissive to the Parliament again.  Actually, we have very clear evidence he wants to control it. So he won’t be driven by the parliament but he will want to drive it.’

Magufuli has certainly brought a new energy to government in Tanzania, and with it, a genuine sense of optimism, which should not be dismissed. Indeed, his push for more accountability and government investment in social services is already bearing fruit. As we move forward though, tensions within his own party, and its crony politics, could pose a serious challenge to his administration. His negligent handling of opposition, meanwhile, is already feeding into a deepening political stalemate in Zanzibar while his apparent aversion to legislative criticism threatens to impoverish political debate.

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