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Two sides to the Magufuli coin

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Two sides to the Magufuli coin

President John Magufuli swept to power on a wave of popular support and won continental and global approval for his anti-corruption measures and the slashing of unnecessary public expenses. However, what his critics perceive as growing autocracy has set him at odds with both donors and some Tanzanians. Analysis by Tom Collins.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli chose a warm Saturday afternoon this November in Dar es Salaam, the country’s economic capital, to dutifully inspect 75 trucks belonging to the national army, the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces. Yet this was no run-of-the-mill military parade. In fact Magufuli has gained a reputation for reining in unnecessary expense, implementing an unpopular ban on Tanzania’s annual military parade to celebrate independence from Britain.

On this occasion, the soldiers were awaiting orders from Magufuli to disperse into the countryside and buy the country’s entire cashew-nut crop at almost double the market price, after farmers complained of decimated profits amid a price tumble. While this may dismay committed free market advocates, it does show where Magufuli’s heart lies.

Faced with immediate distress for the country’s million-strong smallholder farmers, he decided on a novel way to ease their plight. At one stroke of his executive writ, he allayed their fears and ensured they and their families could sleep soundly at night.

Make no mistake, Magufuli has been doing what he pledged before becoming President – he has slashed government spending and perks for public servants, he has invested in education and has carried out a relentless campaign against corruption both within and without government. Impromptu raids on businesses to check their accounts and tax declarations have increased tax revenue and any form of ‘magendo’ (corrupt practice) has become hazardous, where once it was seen as part and parcel of daily commerce. His drive earned him the nickname of ‘the Bulldozer’.

The abrupt shift in culture has left many discomfited as their ‘alternative’ lines of income have dried up, with consequent damage to their often lavish lifestyles. Unsurprisingly, a well of resentment against him has been growing in some quarters, with strong rumours circulating that political cabals have been forming around former government ministers to ensure that he is a ‘one-term President’.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that his style is perceived as authoritarian in a country that has got used to the ‘softly, softly’ approach of its last three Presidents who felt that a certain amount of laissez-faire was a permissible compromise to open conflict.

Tanzanian politics, while intensely competitive, has never degenerated into open or violent conflict between opposing groups. While few can fault Magufuli’s determination to improve the lot of the common citizen or his zeal in fighting – and winning – the battle against corruption, some of his
other measures seem to have irked mostly Western donors.

A case in point has been developments to target members of the LGBT community, which have recently drawn condemnation from Tanzania’s Western donor partners, whose funds make up 8% of the country’s budget. While the issues of LGBT people may be of concern in Western nations, unfortunately they do not figure large in Tanzanian society, where personal sexual orientation is seen as a strictly private matter, not something to be aired in public.

However, his stance on refusing to allow girl students who become pregnant to continue with their education has drawn far wider criticism, including from women’s groups in other African countries. They point out that the issue is complex and is often the result of gender power disparity. They would rather see the men who cause the pregnancy to be made answerable for their actions, rather than condemning girls to a life of misery.

With some donors freezing aid, the concern now is that very little can be done to rein in Magufuli’s increasingly erratic policies, as many are left wondering where he will strike next.

Good beginnings

It is perhaps this stance, more than any other, that has led to some Western countries freezing aid. Magufuli has struck back by praising the less stringent requirements of Chinese aid. “This is quite unusual for Tanzania,” says Murithi Mutiga, Deputy Project Director at Crisis Group, when asked about the current situation.

Tanzania, previously a donor darling, was known for its peaceful society where the population enjoyed relative freedom. Despite the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, one of Africa’s longest-serving political outfits, making it clear that the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1992 would take some time to take full eff ect, the party had the overall backing of the population and enjoyed consensus at the executive level.

Even in terms of a robust democracy, improvements were trundling slowly along as the opposition Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi party, a newly formed coalition of opposition parties, recorded their biggest win against Magufuli three years ago. Tanzania’s political heartland of Dar es Salaam was in fact ceded to an opposition candidate.

CCM’s slipping grip on its 54 years in power, is partly responsible for the rise of Magufuli, explains Mutiga. In the run-up to the elections, the ruling party were aware of their growing unpopularity, in the face of alleged mass corruption in former President Jakaya Kikwete’s administration.

At the time Magufuli, as Minister of Works, was relatively unknown. He was brought in as a compromise candidate to solve a factional divide within the CCM and as a fresh face to win the election. The strategy worked and soon after his victory, Magufuli began to crack down on public office, starting with the Tanzania Revenue Authority, and earning his moniker ‘the Bulldozer’ in the process.

“The ruling party recognised the public desire for change and so that’s how Magufuli came into the picture,” says Mutiga. Since his appointment and victory, however, Magufuli has firmly consolidated and centralised power with some suggesting he is now beyond the control of his party.

Crackdown

Tanzania has played host to a range of social and political repressions over the past 18 months. In a country which used to hold vibrant political rallies, the ability of opposition groups to meet and protest is becoming increasingly compromised.

In what has become a symbol of government crackdown, outspoken opposition leader Tundu Lissu was shot in a drive-by attack last September that left 28 bullets in his car and body. While Lissu has received treatment in Belgium for his injuries, those responsible have never been brought to justice. In November, Freeman Mbowe, the head of Tanzania’s now main opposition Chadema party, was arrested and put in jail after failing to appear in court to face charges of illegal protest.

Alongside politicians, the media is facing a crackdown, too. Many publications which are critical of the government have been shut down, and the authorities have introduced legislation which requires bloggers to pay the government $930 a year in exchange for a blogging licence.

Speaking out, in any form, has grown to carry with it severe consequences. A journalist writing for the national Guardian newspaper, who wished to remain anonymous, replied to New African saying “Honestly no one will accept to talk – it’s a bit tense here.”

Finally, a trend of socially conservative policies is developing which appears to be targeting women. At the outset Magufuli banned pregnant women from attending school; then banned fake nails in parliament; and most recently called for an end to female contraception.

This cultural conservatism appears to have motivated Paul Makonda, Commissioner of the Dar es Salaam region, to encourage citizens to report gay people to the authorities under the country’s antigay laws. Those reported would be rounded up by an “ad hoc team” and taken into custody, he said in late October.

Coming from Tanzania’s fairly liberal past, it remains unclear what is driving these changes. Some have suggested that Magufuli is appealing to a conservative base. “Declaring that teenage mothers should be kept out of school plays well to the conservative gallery in Tanzania,” writes Dan Paget on African Arguments. “Magufuli is constructing a public narrative in which he rediscovers CCM’s moral compass.”

Others argue it is down to his evident disdain for the West; driven by an insular outlook, and demonstrated by his moves to crack down on foreign companies –ranging from miners to NGOs. Indeed, under his regime an increasing ‘us versus them’ narrative is taking shape in which ‘foreign interference’ is being used as a blanket excuse to lambast any outsiders critical of the government.

‘Wait and see’

This hostility to foreign businesses and organisations has led many to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, according to Mutiga. At the moment, most firms are wary of the government; not wishing to draw the president’s ire in a similar way to the ongoing dispute with UK-listed company, Acaia Mining.

Last year, the government slapped a whopping $180bn penalty on the mining firm, pertaining to unpaid taxes over a period of two decades. Acaia Mining responded by offering to pay $300m as a gesture of goodwill but the government has since stuck to its guns and blocked exports from two of Acaia’s mines.

With Magufuli making interventions into the economy on an ad hoc basis many are being careful not to get stung. “I would say that in the medium-term, Tanzania’s prospects are bright because they have so much mineral wealth and latent economic potential including in agriculture,” comments Mutiga. “But in the short term I would be surprised if this doesn’t have a negative effect, especially due to the chilling influence it will inevitably have on foreign investment. Arbitrary crackdowns on domestic investors have not helped to improve the short-run economic outlook.”

As it stands, those willing to confront the government are multilateral donors taking issue with some of Tanzania’s social policies. Denmark froze $10m in funding to Tanzania, saying it is concerned over policies threatening gay people. Meanwhile, the World Bank put a planned $300m loan for an education project on hold, partly in response to a law preventing pregnant girls from returning to school.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation, Augustine Mahiga, commented: “If these are the consequences, we are ready to suffer. We cannot kneel down and be blackmailed, because they have money and we are poor.”

Magufuli responded to the disfavour by coming out in full support of Chinese aid, saying “the thing that makes you happy about their aid is that it is not tied to any conditions. When they decide to give you, they just give you.”

Tanzania, once a model within Africa for a prosperous and inclusive society, is rapidly being defamed by the increasingly erratic polices of its new leader. As the state wades in on everything from society to the economy, those set to suffer most are average Tanzanians.  

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