Tanzania – Opening salvo, or final shot? Factional challenges to President Magufuli

A recent letter from two former ruling party secretary generals—widely interpreted as an open criticism of President Magufuli—has caused something of a stir in Tanzanian politics over the past two weeks.

Yusuf Makamba and Abdulrahman Kinana took direct aim at the controversial newspaper publisher, Cyprian Musiba, who has been accused of libel for printing allegations that various high-profile figures within CCM and the opposition are plotting to undermine Magufuli. Addressing their letter to the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Council of Elders, Makamba and Kinana warned that these “unfounded allegations” pose a threat to the party’s “unity, solidarity and tranquillity” and called on the former presidents and party officials who make up the Council to take action. The two erstwhile secretary generals also emphasised that Musiba was being protected so that he could “carry out a special mission for important people and with evil intent.”

The letter triggered a flurry of reactions. Several CCM MPs lined up to defend the President. Among them was Hussein Bashe, a sometimes critic and strong backer of Magufuli’s main rival in the 2015 elections, Edward Lowassa. In this instance, though, Bashe was uncompromising in his support for the President, describing the letter as “a plot to deny President Magufuli of a chance to contest a second term in 2020”. Other responses, all coming from figures outside CCM, were more sympathetic to the letter writers, suggesting they were right to break their silence.

Why the excitement?

Since assuming the Presidency in 2015, Magufuli has made a concerted effort to tame CCM’s rival factions, centralising power under his control. In the process, he has alienated many party grandees as well as party-aligned economic elites. This re-balancing—and especially some of the violent means through which it has been executed—has fed simmering tensions in CCM with much speculation about whether and when they could boil over into open conflict.

In this vein, observers have wondered whether disgruntled CCM heavyweights—including Makamba and Kinana—might be coordinating in the background, preparing the groundwork to challenge Magufuli ahead of the 2020 elections. While such coordination efforts have seemed increasingly unlikely, the President and those closest to him nevertheless continue to demonstrate a high level of paranoia, expressed in part through the accusations published by the now infamous Musiba in his Tanzanite newspaper. For instance, the current Secretary General, Bashiru Ally, issued a public summons late last year, demanding that former contender for the CCM presidential nomination, Bernard Membe, come see him about allegations (again, published in Tanzanite) that Membe was plotting to supplant Magufuli in 2020.

Viewed against this backdrop, Makamba and Kinana’s letter implied the situation had finally reached the much-anticipated boiling point. As one paper intoned, it “raised a storm that exposed major cracks within CCM”.

Beyond simply exposing those cracks, though, the letter marked a moment of reckoning for the ruling party. As the political economist Mushtaq Khan argues, who has power is not obvious until that power is subjected to a contest, at which point the competitors see who can hold out and thus determine who has the upper hand. So long as internal CCM rivalries remain in the shadowy domain of rumour and allegation, there is room to doubt who is really in control—to query whether Magufuli’s grip is as strong as it appears.

So, who won?

Clearly, the President.

For all the excitement, Makamba and Kinana’s effort was a flop. The events that followed its release have left Magufuli’s dominance seeming greater than before.

The letter’s authors refer to conversations with supporters—fellow CCM members, religious leaders and the like—who share their frustrations. Yet none of these came forward to defend the letter once it was made public. As noted earlier, no CCM figure openly backed it.

In his response, the secretary of the Council of Elders, former CCM Vice Chair Pius Msekwa, simply reaffirmed the weakness of that body, saying it would refer the complaint to a “higher level”. The Council was created in 2012 under then President Jakaya Kikwete, who used it opportunistically to help block the presidential ambitions of his rival, Lowassa. Having served its function, the Council seemingly no longer has much relevance.

Another blow to the letter-writers, if more indirect this time, came when only days after they released their statement, Magufuli fired Yusuf Makamba’s son, January Makamba, who was serving as Environment Minister. Although Magufuli claimed his decision was motivated by frustrations with delays in issuing environmental assessment certificates to would-be investors, observers were sceptical about the timing of his move. Those close to January Makamba have reported that he was on borrowed time anyway, kept in post partially so that the President could keep a close eye on him. But the letter appeared to force the issue and led to his decisive ouster. Not in a position to hit back, Makamba simply thanked the President in a graciously worded tweet, after which his usually busy account went quiet.

While Makamba was on his way out, the above-mentioned Bashe rose up the ladder, seemingly rewarded for his interjection with an appointment as deputy minister of agriculture.

Wither CCM?

With no sign of effective factional coordination to challenge Magufuli from within the ruling party, his rivals face a choice; either they remain in the cold—with the added prospect of economic and physical coercion—or renegotiate an entry into the President’s inner circle.

Rostam Aziz—long-time Lowassa ally and one-time billionaire—has managed just such a re-entry. After a period of seemingly self-imposed exile following Magufuli’s election, he has returned, met privately with Magufuli, ushered Lowassa back into CCM after his defection to opposition party CHADEMA, and added to the volley of accusations thrown at the much-maligned Membe for his supposed efforts to undermine the President. Aziz’s latest business venture, a $60m liquefied gas plant, was inaugurated by Magufuli last month.

The apparent predictability of Magufuli’s continued dominance, at least through the 2020 elections, does not however reduce the prospect of further violence and paranoia. The recent spate of seemingly state-orchestrated abductions and murders shows no sign of abating. Nor do the accusations levied by Musiba and others against Magufuli’s supposed detractors.

Meanwhile, after 2020, it is the 2025 elections that will become the main focus. Barring a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, Magufuli will be stepping down and, in the CCM tradition, opening the floodgates for renewed factional manoeuvring ahead of a fresh CCM presidential nomination contest. Given the levels of tension and outright violence within the party at present, the prospect of that contest is scarier than in the past—its peaceful resolution, harder to imagine.

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