When a photo of a smiling President
John Magufuli, sitting in the economy class of a plane, appeared on Twitter
days ago, it was widely praised as another example of his personal austerity
and common touch.

That the picture was in fact an
official photo opportunity at the launch of two new Air Tanzania planes —
Bombardier Q400s that only have an economy class and never left the ground —
made no difference to his local fans and those abroad.

Since winning last October’s
election, Magufuli has shown a talent for publicity-grabbing stunts that
bolster his no-nonsense, corruption-busting, man-of-the-people reputation and
have made him popular.

He won the poll with 58 per cent of
the vote. A recent opinion poll gave him a staggering 96 per cent approval

Yet at the same time, his readiness
to act on impulse worries some who see an authoritarian streak at the core of
his populism.

Magufuli has shut down newspapers,
banned opposition rallies, switched off live broadcasts of parliamentary
sessions, applied a draconian cybercrimes law to jail critics, and permitted a
messy and unfair election to pass in semi-autonomous Zanzibar.

“We’re being blind to the negative
stuff,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African politics at Oxford
University, who argues that Magufuli’s good and bad moves stem from a worrying
willingness to break the rules.

“When he marches into a place and
dismisses people without due process, he’s acting in a populist way, but at the
root of that is the same thing that sees him going against the rules in banning
rallies,” Cheeseman said.

Magufuli, whose nickname “tingatinga”
means “bulldozer” in Kiswahili, began his presidency by sweeping the streets on
Independence Day, appointing a streamlined cabinet, firing officials suspected
of ineptitude or corruption, sacking latecomer civil servants and banning first
class tickets, expensive foreign travel and costly allowances.

The cost-cutting earned him the
approving and popular #WhatWouldMagufuliDo hashtag with which Twitter users
shared their often-humorous money-saving ideas.

It played well in the country where
generations of same-party rule had left the youthful population disenchanted
with traditional politics.

The selection of a relatively
unknown 56-year-old former works minister, unencumbered by corruption, was a
master stroke by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi, said Nicodemus Minde, a
Tanzanian political analyst.

“The CCM brand was tarnished, but
Magufuli’s was not,” Minde said, allowing for a semblance of change while
perpetuating CCM rule.
Opposition politicians rail against Magufuli “for turning Tanzania into a


The claim is surprising, given their
performance in the vote in which the opposition won control of major cities,
including Arusha and Dar es Salaam, and more parliamentary seats than before.

Adjoa Anyimadu, a researcher at
Chatham House think tank in London, says Tanzanian presidents generally serve
two five-year terms, meaning it is too early to say whether this constriction
of democratic space is going to continue to tighten over Magufuli’s presidency.

Nevertheless, he appears “a bit of a
throwback to the early days of multiparty democracy in Tanzania,” a sentiment
shared by some who see him as a reincarnation of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s
founding father and an authoritarian socialist.

As president he has made just two
visits abroad, to Rwanda and Uganda, and hosted the president of the Democratic
Republic of Congo. 

The presidents of the neighbouring
three countries are notorious hardliners bent on staying in power. 

Magufuli has skipped two African
Union summits and been a no-show at three trade and development forums in
Kenya, leading Minde to worry that Magufuli’s stated focus on domestic issues
may damage Tanzania’s regional and international standing, as well as being
seen as rude and undiplomatic.

Magufuli’s campaign slogan was “Hapa
kazi tu!”
meaning “We’re here to work!” and that desire is used to justify
clampdowns on those perceived to be blocking his political programme.

But the concern that democracy is
being sacrificed in the name of development is a serious one, particularly in a
region with precedents, among them Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, where success
in development and economic growth gave leaders a pass on rights and freedoms
with foreign donors.

“When a leader gets used to breaking
rules, institutions get weaker and then the question comes further down the
line: are the checks and balances on power still there?” said Cheeseman.

About the author

Mtikiso Music

Leave a Comment