Presidential Profile – John Pombe Magufuli: An outsider with an ambitious (and controversial) agenda

Presidential Profile

John Pombe Magufuli

Only one year in office and Tanzania’s new president, John Pombe Magufuli, has thoroughly divided opinions. To some, he is mchapakazi (a workhorse), tingatinga (a bulldozer), an anti-corruption crusader with a vision of how to propel Tanzania to middle-income status. To others, he is a “petty dictator”, an uncompromising taskmaster bent on quashing opposition parties and curbing civil liberties in the interests of “peace” and “development”.

Whichever side you fall on, it is undeniable that Magufuli’s presidency has sent shockwaves through Tanzania’s political system. Whether he will achieve the ambitious change he desires, rooting out entrenched politico-business networks and setting a path towards industrial transformation, is another matter. But whatever the outcome, his disruptive politics are a story in their own right, which begins with his improbable rise to the top.

The candidate from nowhere  

In 1985, when Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere retired from office, the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) instituted a two-term limit, ensuring a transfer of power from one president to the next every 10 years. Since then, CCM’s presidential nominations have become increasingly competitive. Ahead of the 2015 general elections, a record 42 presidential aspirants entered the race to become the official nominee.

This competition is largely the result of growing factionalism, which reached a new high in 2015. The main cleavage was between the outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete and his former Prime Minister turned rival, Edward Lowassa.

Kikwete threw his weight behind several candidates, his top preference being his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Membe. Lowassa, meanwhile, mobilized a carefully cultivated network of supporters to rally behind his own bid for the nomination. Among the remaining presidential aspirants, many were rumoured to be “spoilers” fronted by one side or the other to split the vote in their favour.

The uncertainty surrounding the nominations fuelled a wave of intense speculation. But amidst the many lists of supposed top contenders, one name barely got a mention. Magufuli kept a low profile through the nominations process. Although a minister for 20 years, he never held an official position within CCM and steered clear of factional politics. He had a reputation as clean politician who kept his head down and got the job done. As Minister of Works under Kikwete, he attracted some attention due to his road-building zeal. But even so, he continued to be seen primarily as an effective technocrat.

In an ironic twist, the internal party divisions that Magufuli so scrupulously avoided ultimately helped catapult him to the top. President Kikwete manipulated the CCM nomination procedure, using the vetting powers of the party ethics committee to remove Lowassa’s name from the list of eligible aspirants. The CCM National Executive Committee, which contained a majority of Lowassa supporters, then retaliated by voting out Kikwete’s two preferred aspirants from a list of five pre-vetted candidates. The National Congress then voted overwhelmingly for Magufuli. The other two candidates, both women, were presumably seen to pose too great an electoral risk.

An unusual campaign

At the start of presidential campaigns, Magufuli faced several challenges.

The CCM brand had lost some of its lustre during the Kikwete years, in part due to repeated corruption scandals. At the same time, the opposition invested considerably in extending its organizational reach countrywide and, after uniting in a four-party coalition, seemed poised to make record electoral gains.

As a candidate, Magufuli was also weak. He had no support base of his own so relied on a campaign taskforce composed largely of close Kikwete allies. Moreover, he had to square off against Lowassa, who defected and became the candidate for the opposition coalition. Many Lowassa supporters left CCM with him while those who stayed were accused of backing his candidacy.

Magufuli responded by turning his reputation as a low-profile technocrat to his advantage. His stump speech promised an end to corruption and a renewed dedication to hard work. He contrasted his own integrity with Lowassa’s alleged history of backroom deals. In positioning himself as the anti-corruption candidate, he also distanced himself from business-as-usual under Kikwete, upon whose support he nevertheless continued to rely. He promised to serve the wananchi (ordinary citizens) and referred to former President Nyerere’s fiercely egalitarian politics as his guide.

The first 100 days

Magufuli won the 2015 election with 58 percent of the vote, the lowest ever for a CCM presidential candidate.

He immediately set about implementing a populist agenda. He declared his government would slash all wasteful expenditure and followed up by ordering an end to “unnecessary foreign travels” for government officials. He then announced that the $150m saved on air travel costs would be reinvested in road construction. A series of similar gestures then followed.

Weeding out corruption, or “bursting boils” to use Magufuli’s phrase, emerged as an equally important part of the campaign against waste. Weeks into his presidency, Magufuli launched 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 investigations were still pending into the disappearance of 349 shipping containers from TRA’s records. Again, these early moves were quickly followed by more suspensions, firings and threats from State House.

Magufli indicated his overriding aim was to eliminate corruption and ensure economic transformation through a soon to be revealed development plan. His shock-and-awe approach was also politically strategic, and this for two reasons.

First, it generated a wave of popular support. It also helped pre-empt any potential opposition from within CCM and government. Magufuli’s own political base was narrow at best, yet his actions threatened the entrenched patterns of rent-seeking that had come to define CCM politics. Amongst those allegedly opposed to the new President’s approach was his predecessor and erstwhile mentor, Kikwete. By acting swiftly, though, Magufuli could at least temporarily cow otherwise vocal opponents into silence. He was, arguably, further aided by the temporary confusion Lowassa’s defection caused within CCM. One of the party’s strongest factions was now in disarray and, without its leader, appeared suddenly powerless.

But those who had something to fear as a result of Magufuli anti-corruption crusade were not the only ones worried about the President’s new style.

The opposition and civil liberties

After taking office, Magufuli quickly imposed heavy restrictions on opposition parties.

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 2015 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 2016 amidst an opposition boycott, thus leading to an overwhelming victory for the long-time ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). What’s more, starting in September, the CCM government has exacerbated divisions within CUF after the Registrar of Political Parties repeatedly favoured one of two rival factions.

Tensions, meanwhile, have also grown between Magufuli and CHADEMA, Tanzania’s largest opposition party and the dominant player on the mainland. Through the Deputy Speaker, a lawyer appointed to Parliament by Magufuli, the President has seemingly tried to stifle opposition in Parliament. He has also effectively banned all opposition meetings outside of parliament, even internal party meetings. Individual politicians meanwhile, have repeatedly been drawn to court with some languishing for months in jail.

Opposition parties are not the only ones affected by the new strong-arm politics. Several Whatsapp users have been charged with insulting the President under the Cyber Crimes Act, a piece of legislation passed under Kikwete. A newly enacted Media Services Bill also promises a fresh set of restrictions on free expression while journalists have also found themselves under pressure.

The economy

Despite some impressive gains in revenue collection and cost cutting efforts, Magufuli’s economic management has raised serious concerns. His efforts to centralize control over wealth creation and to root out corruption and waste have, in many instances, had negative economic ramifications.

Some of these were perhaps unavoidable. Magufuli’s order that all government meetings be held in public offices, and not luxury hotels as was the norm, has hit the hospitality sector hard. But pouring government funds into rented conference space was, to begin with, perhaps not the best form of economic stimulus.

Other negative side-effects are, however, down to poorly conceived policy decisions. For instance, efforts to levy VAT and crack down on smuggling has led to a 800,000-tonne drop in cargo volumes going through Dar es Salaam port.

Whilst Magufuli’s push for rapid industrial expansion will depend on foreign investment, he has done little to boost investor confidence. In March, Magufuli declared he wanted a stop to the practice of ‘hiring generators’, admittedly a costly means of power generation. The Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Tanesco) responded by denying having signed a contract with an American company, Symbion, responsible for managing a gas-fired power plant in Dar es Salaam. In January of this year, while addressing a crowd at a rally, Magufuli announced that he would cancel the operating license of a foreign mining company that had already invested $26m prospecting for nickel. This came after local officials had advised the President that the best location to develop a water project was within the area covered by the company’s license.

Perhaps most worrying, there is mounting concern of food shortages and possible famine due to drought. Magufuli has, however, refused to declare a famine, alleging that the supposed threat is a media and opposition fabrication.

 

Where to from here?

With the next elections due in 2020, it is still early days for the Magufuli presidency. And yet his time in office has already caused significant upheaval.

Given the severe restrictions on opposition parties, it is unclear whether they can bounce back and build on their 2015 electoral gains. Recent by-election results suggest they are in a weak position, as is to be expected.

Regarding Magufuli’s economic legacy, it is still too early to tell. Data on Tanzania’s macro-economic performance is mixed. Signs of a significant dip in growth rates may be attributable to the negative effects of drought on agricultural production while other sectors, like construction, are expanding, possibly thanks to the President’s commitment to infrastructural development. The success of Magufuli’s ambitious industrialization agenda will, nevertheless, require more than a fiscal stimulus.

Finally, there is the crucial question of Magufuli’s support within CCM. There are persistent rumours of tensions between Kikwete and Magufuli. At the same time, some argue that Magufuli has curbed his anti-corruption zeal, treading carefully around issues that may implicate leading CCM figures, including his predecessor.

An outsider at the start, Magufuli is still walking a political tightrope. While his desire to re-engineer a corrupt political settlement in Tanzania is laudable, success is far from assured. His methods too—a mix of repression and intimidation—leave much to be desired. As with much else in the world of 2017, these remain interesting times.

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