Last March, after appointing a fresh cohort of 26 Regional Commissioners, President Magufuli offered some sobering advice to his new appointees: “You have the authority to jail people for up to 48 hours. Lock them up so that they learn how to respect you.” He then added, “Don’t be afraid to make decisions. It’s better you take decisions. Even if they are bad, they can be adjusted later.”
Six months on, the President’s instructions have not gone unheeded. Reports of apparent abuses perpetrated by both Regional and District Commissions keep multiplying. While not necessarily breaking the law, Commissions are making the most of the 48-hour rule, which Magufuli referenced. Enshrined in clause 15(2) of the 1997 Regional Administration Act, it stipulates that a Commissioner can order that any individual be put in custody without a charge for as long as two days if deemed likely to “disturb the public tranquillity.”
Commissioners are using these powers to “discipline” public servants and politicians, primarily local councillors. In one district, the Commissioner jailed two high ranking district officials for 12 hours, accusing them of failing to find funds to pay city street cleaners, as per the Commissioner’s orders. In another district, the Commissioner ordered the arrest of four local councillors from Tanzania’s leading opposition party, CHADEMA. The district council chairman—among those arrested—spent the night in jail. The Commissioner’s explanation: “Those [councillors] were messing up my visits to see the wananchi [people] and undermining government development efforts.”
These heavy-handed interventions—and the reasons invoked to justify them—raise questions about the precise responsibilities of a Regional or District Commissioner, beyond presumably preserving “public tranquillity.” According to the above-mentioned Regional Administration Act, District Commissioners are the “principal representatives of the government” within their area and, as such, “all the executive functions of Government […] shall be exercised by or through” them. They are responsible for maintaining “law and order,” for overseeing the implementation of government policies and, crucially, for “assisting” local government authorities, including by “ensuring compliance by all persons and authorities with appropriate Government decisions […].”
Whatever the circumstances, Commissioners clearly enjoy wide-ranging authority. Under President Magufuli, however, they are increasingly using the full breadth of their (loosely defined) legal powers. They are emerging as the local exponents of the President’s “Hapa kazi tu” agenda, justifying apparent excesses by invoking the developmental value of their work. Hence their actions against allegedly non-performing public servants and, most especially, their efforts to clip the wings of local councils and their elected members.
Councillors from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party have not been spared, also facing sanctions and arrests. But the bulk of the Commissioners’ interventions target opposition politicians and opposition-controlled councils. The most flagrant case is in Tanzania’s third largest city, Arusha, where the city council is under CHADEMA control. The District Commissioner, later promoted to Regional Commissioner, has been embroiled in an ongoing dispute with councillors for months after first announcing a drastic cut in their allowances and subsequently interfering with decisions made by the council. Tensions have also escalated between the Commissioner, Mrisho Gambo, and the Arusha city MP, Godbless Lema, also from CHADEMA. Lema has repeatedly accused Gambo of taking credit for development projects.
Top opposition leaders predictably condemn the Commissioners’ actions, and the apparent encouragement coming from the President. What is less clear is how leaders within Magufuli’s own party view Commissioners’ actions, and their growing prominence. On the one hand, many of Magufuli’s Commissioners are CCM politicians who lost out in the most recent elections. As such, they are themselves close to—or else part and parcel of—the ruling party. On the other hand, though, the Commissioners’ actions seem to pre-empt or substitute a development campaign led by the party itself, through its various structures. Under Magufuli’s predecessor—Jakaya Kikwete—, the CCM Secretary General undertook an energetic national tour aimed at restoring people’s faith in the party and its poverty-fighting agenda. That focus and vitality is currently absent from CCM, which if anything, appears temporarily paralyzed.
Magufuli, now party chairman, continues to warn fellow CCM leaders of a coming anti-corruption drive whilst promising a “new CCM” at public events. In the meantime, the President appears much more comfortable working with his appointees. As Commissioner Gambo faced increasingly sharp criticism in Arusha, it was Magufuli who called him personally on the phone to express his continued support.