There is growing optimism over Tanzania’s political and economic future. New President Samia Suluhu Hassan has begun to lift restrictions on the activities of opposition political parties to help ease some of the tensions that built up when her predecessor John Magufuli was in power.
At the same time, broad-based growth has turned the country into one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, while a planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) project could become Tanzania’s biggest-ever industrial investment. Overreliance on hydrocarbon revenues is a threat, while the country has still never had a genuinely competitive national election, but Hassan has certainly transformed the mood during her first two years in power.
Magufuli was certainly enormously popular with large sections of the Tanzanian population but he was not a fan of political opposition and had a reputation for being abrasive with foreign investors. He banned rallies by opposition parties in mid-2016, a huge step given that rallies, or public meetings, are a big part of the Tanzanian political system, as in most of the rest of the continent.
Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which had ruled the country since independence, had long had an authoritarian streak but the man nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ turned the volume up on this tendency.
Hassan decided to end the ban on opposition rallies at the start of 2023 as part of her 4Rs initiative – Reconciliation, Resilience, Reforms and Rebuilding – having already lifted bans on some media outlets.
Mass rallies have already been held by the biggest opposition party, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema), among others. Chadema leader Tundu Lissu, who fled the country after surviving an assassination attempt in 2017 in which he was shot 16 times, returned to Tanzania to take part in them.
Chadema has grown steadily as a political force over many years, mainly through grassroots activism, and now includes some former CCM politicians among in its ranks.
However, low tolerance for political opposition culminated in the 2020 elections, where it won just a single constituency, down from 36 in 2015. Lissu secured just 13% of the vote in the 2020 Presidential poll, hampered by the fact that he spent most of his time in exile in Belgium, but there were many allegations of widespread electoral irregularities.
Hassan does seem to be undoing some of the damage Magufuli inflicted on the political system but the question the public is asking is whether she will go further in helping to create a genuine open democracy.
Even before her predecessor came to power, opposition parties were at something of a disadvantage. Moreover, Hassan was part of the last administration as Vice-President for the five years preceding Magufuli’s death, at a time when political opponents were jailed, including Chadema chair Freeman Mbowe, in his case on charges of terrorism, although these were later dropped.
It has also taken Hassan two years to lift the ban on rallies, giving opposition parties just two and a half years to rebuild and plan for the October 2025 election. She says that freedom of political expression is a universal right, but has warned opponents to be “civil” and not to “trade insults”. Nevertheless, Lissu says that he hopes the CCM is now ready for a more open style of politics. Hassan has agreed to consider opposition requests to strengthen judicial and electoral commission independence and to change the constitution to reduce the power of the Presidency.
The current President is also an important figure as Tanzania’s first female Head of State, in a country where there is still a long way to go on female empowerment. There is no evidence yet of how far Hassan will be go in changing the country’s political culture but it is, at least, a good start. Moreover, the fact that opposition parties should be able to mobilise once again and that Lissu has returned to the country could build momentum for continued change.
In many ways, a truly open democratic system which encourages debates and discussion of national – as well as local issues – will be a return of the country to its characteristic openness during the leadership of Julius Nyerere (1964–85), Tanzania’s first President, and that of Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa who followed him. During this period, the country acquired the reputation of being Africa’s intellectual capital, where high-quality discussions were the norm not only in the corridors of power but at the street level.
President Samia Hassan is undoubtedly benefitting from an economic recovery following the Covid-19-inspired slump, while the country is coping better than many of its neighbours from the impact of the war in Ukraine, although food costs are greatly outstripping general inflation, which averaged just 4.5% last year. The economy grew by 2% in 2020 at the height of the pandemic but rebounded to 4.3% in 2021 and an estimated 5.1% last year.
Tanzania’s 61.5m population enjoys per capita income of $1,136, the second-highest figure in East Africa. The World Bank forecasts that Tanzania will be one of Africa’s best performing economies this year with growth of 5.3% in comparison with a continental average of 3.6%.
While this growth has been generally broad-based, the country stands on the verge of securing its biggest-ever investment project. Last year, the UK’s Shell and Norway’s Equinor signed a framework agreement with the Tanzanian government to develop an LNG project in the south of the country, with the final investment decision due by 2025. The scale of production hasn’t been finalised but 15m tonnes a year has been mooted and more could follow at a later date.
Stanbic Bank Tanzania described the scheme as “Tanzania’s best-ever economic opportunity”. According to the bank, production capacity of 15m tonnes a year would boost Tanzania’s GDP by about $7bn, while generating $2bn a year in revenue for the government. Given that GDP stood at $67.8bn in 2021 and government spending at $17.69bn for 2022-23, the economic importance of the project is clear.
The scheme should have wide implications for Tanzanian development, particularly in the far southeast, which is one of the least developed parts of the country. About 6,000 jobs will be created while the onshore plant that will liquefy the gas is built, with a much smaller number of workers needed to operate the plant.
The government is expected to require that as many jobs as possible are filled by Tanzanians. Infrastructural improvements needed to support the project, including port capacity, should benefit wider economic development.
Moreover, the development plan requires at least 200m cubic feet of gas a day to be made available locally. This could be used to supply a new power plant but some gas could also be used in fertiliser and cement production.
However, the injection of so much capital into the economy in a short space of time carries obvious risks. Firstly, as the historic experience of Nigeria demonstrates, it is all too easy for governments to focus far too much on hydrocarbons, neglecting other parts of the economy.
It is likely that Nigeria would have been economically, socially and politically better off today if oil had never been discovered.
Secondly, Ghana’s current economic difficulties show the dangers both of governments ramping up spending too quickly in anticipation of oil and gas revenues, and of the inflationary potential of a hydrocarbon boom.
The Tanzanian government has hopefully learnt these West African lessons and also those of Botswana, where diamond income has been generally well invested and used over several decades for the benefit of generations of Botswanans.