After he first took office last November, President John Magufuli’s relations with Tanzania’s opposition coalition quickly deteriorated. In the past month, they have reached new lows, with many in the Tanzanian commentariat recalling the one-party era by way of comparison.
From bad to worse
The first, and most flagrant, breach of trust between President Magufuli and the opposition, particularly the Civic United Front (CUF) party, came after the chairman of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission annulled the elections for the Zanzibari President and House of Representatives. While this initial decision had nothing to do with Magufuli, his subsequent unwillingness to intervene was heavily criticized by opposition actors. The elections were re-run in March of this year amidst an opposition boycott, thus leading to an overwhelming victory for the long-time ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). The Secretary General of CUF most recently called for Magufuli to be tried in an international court for crimes against humanity, referring to alleged police brutality following the 2015 elections.
Tensions, meanwhile, have also set in between Magufuli and CHADEMA, Tanzania’s largest opposition party and the dominant player on the mainland. Many in the opposition accused CCM of stealing the presidential election, asserting that CHADEMA candidate Edward Lowassa won against CCM’s Magufuli. The opposition—united in a coalition known by the acronym UKAWA—went on to boycott Magufuli’s swearing in. Magufuli in turn ruffled feathers with a succession of interventions, which many interpreted as aimed at preventing the opposition in parliament—and parliament as an institution—from effectively challenging the executive. These included imposing his preferred candidate—a lawyer who had never served in parliament—as Deputy Speaker, halting highly popular live broadcasts of parliamentary debates, and intervening in the selection of parliamentary committee members. The opposition responded to this last move by refusing to elect chairs for the opposition-headed oversight committees, including the Public Accounts Committee. Opposition MPs also staged a series of noisy protests during House debates, which led to their forcible removal by the parliamentary guards as well as voluntary walkouts.
After the first parliamentary sitting finished in early February, a series of smaller scale confrontations occurred. Temperatures again rose sharply, however, with the beginning of the parliamentary sitting in late May. Opposition MPs quickly resolved to boycott sessions chaired by the Deputy Speaker, Tulia Ackson, whom they accuse of serving as Magafuli’s puppet, quashing parliamentary debate and contravening the House rules of procedure. With the Speaker away for medical treatment, Ackson has chaired the majority of recent debates. Opposition MPs have thus abandoned the House for much of the past month, during which time parliament debated the government’s annual budget. In addition to the MPs’ protest, CHADEMA also announced a countrywide tour to protest Magufuli’s leadership style. The party leaders accused the president of dictatorial tendency, citing the firing of civil servants without following due procedure and the abrupt expulsion of over 7,000 students from one of Tanzania’s public universities. The police responded to this plan by imposing an indefinite ban on political rallies for “security reasons.” On June 22, Magufuli issued a statement of his own, declaring a ban on all political activity (rallies, public meetings, etc.) until 2020, when the next elections are scheduled to take place. He justified this move in the name of “development,” declaring, “We can’t allow people to politicize each and everything, every day. When will the people work and build the nation?”
Magufuli has since reaffirmed his stand, adding that he was elected to fulfill certain electoral promises, and he cannot tolerate any political obstacles to achieving this aim. In addition to targeting opposition activities generally, individuals have also been singled out for “insulting” Magufuli. One Arusha resident was found guilty of insulting the President on his facebook page and sentenced to three years in jail. A second man has since been charged with insulting Magufuli via Whatsapp. Meanwhile, an opposition MP spent a night in jail after he was arrested, seeming because he referred to Magufuli as a “petty dictator.”
Why the democratic backsliding?
President Magufuli’s “style of leadership” certainly differs from his predecessor’s. While in office, Jakaya Kikwete positioned himself as a democrat. Often his commitment seemed largely rhetorical, but even so, parliament became more assertive under his watch while opposition parties were left to conduct their activities in relative freedom. This raises the question, why the abrupt authoritarian reversion under Magufuli?
One possible reason is the unprecedented level of inter-party competition during the last general elections. Following the 1992 reintroduction of multiparty politics, CCM has won presidential and parliamentary elections by very comfortable margins. In 2015, however, the leading opposition presidential candidate managed to win 40% of the vote. While this official result was still a long way from Magufuli’s 58%, it came after a particularly bruising campaign. It was also a distinct improvement over the opposition’s previous peak performance at 27% in 1995 and 2010 and a far cry from the opposition lows in 2000 and 2005 when the leading presidential candidates garnering only 16% and 11% respectively.
While observers have associated rising inter-party competition with increased political tensions in other dominant party states, this factor alone does not explain the current situation in Tanzania. A second reason could be the opposition’s growing predilection for showmanship and stonewalling. Its boycott of much of this year’s budget session in parliament has certainly left some observers unimpressed. Reports that opposition MPs are now refusing to speak to or socialize with CCM MPs also suggest a particularly pernicious partisan polarization. Yet it is hard to blame the opposition when many of their actions are in fact reactions to executive interference.
This brings us to Magufuli. Since taking office, he has pursued an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, firing high ranking bureaucrats suspected of corrupt activities, slashing excess government expenditure and pushing for improved revenue collection. The flip side of this singular focus has been an apparent unwillingness to tolerate political opposition or, indeed, institutional checks-and-balances. Parliament as a whole, not just opposition MPs, has suffered the consequences. Indeed, CCM legislators also echo opposition concerns, accusing the Deputy Speaker in particular of bending House rules and limiting time for debate so as to render it meaningless. Under the circumstances, some argue that their time is better spent watching football in the parliamentary canteen rather than attending sessions.
Finally, we may ask, where is CCM—the ruling party—in all of this? To date, measures taken against the opposition have originated with the executive, coming directly from the President, his ministers, or the security forces. Magufuli, meanwhile, has yet to take over from Jakaya Kikwete as party chairman. His relations with many party stalwarts, moreover, remain ill defined. There was much speculation that CCM insiders were trying to manoeuvre to postpone the transfer. A recent extraordinary Central Committee meeting convened to put an end to this uncertainty, setting a date for the transfer to take place later this month. Magufuli did not attend the meeting, however, something which surprised many.
Development over democracy?
Ultimately, Tanzania’s new President is showing the power of his office by rewriting the rules of the game, seemingly single-handedly. His vision is one of development first, which in this case seems to imply sacrificing democracy. Incidentally, Magufuli and Kagame have repeatedly expressed their admiration for each other. But Tanzania under Magufuli is no Rwanda. Despite some notably early successes, not least his cost cutting efforts, Magufuli has also overseen some costly blunders. For instance, the snap decision to ban all sugar imports while simultaneously attempting to impose a price ceiling on sugar produced domestically had the bizarre effect of undercutting Tanzanian traders, producers and consumers alike. Although a parliamentary committee warned of a looming sugar scarcity, it went unheard.
Magufuli has ambitions to oversee a transformative industrialization process in Tanzania. But rather than there being some trade-off between these developmental aspirations and the country’s democratic growth, the evidence so far suggests the executive would benefit from a more consultative approach that allowed for opposition critique and parliamentary oversight. Yes, this tolerance comes with certain costs, but so does authoritarian intransigence.