John Magufuli: From compromise candidate to ‘petty dictator’?
Few observers could have predicted the transformation of Dr John Pombe Magufuli from a diligent but low-profile minister into an impulsive and uncompromising head of state. With Magufuli determined to refashion the nation in his own image, Tanzania’s president warrants greater attention.
In July 2015, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) -Tanzania’s “party of the revolution” – faced a dilemma. Having governed the country since independence, CCM grandees were out of touch with the under 35s, which account for 60% of registered voters. An opposition coalition, galvanised around promises to root out corruption and reform the United Republic’s lopsided constitution, posed an unprecedented threat. Unable to unite behind a presidential candidate ahead of the October 2015 elections, CCM structures rejected the two favourites in the race: Bernard Membe, an ally of outgoing president Jakaya Kikwete, and former prime minister Edward Lowassa, who later defected to the opposition. Instead, the party opted for a consensus candidate, Dr John Magufuli.
A former chemistry teacher who had served in government since 1995, Magufuli’s name was not associated with corruption—a remarkable feat in a party known for attracting individuals seeking lucrative state contracts. The fact that Magufuli lacked his own political base was viewed by many CCM elders as an asset rather than a liability. When Magufuli promised voters an unprecedented anti-corruption drive, alongside investment in infrastructure and industry, doubtless many in the party hierarchy regarded this as mere rhetoric. Such under-estimation will have cost them dearly.
Since his election two years ago, Magufuli has tackled—to different degrees—the vested interests of Tanzanian elites. In an uncompromising move to cut civil service profligacy, the president banned the use of hotels for meetings, cutting off a lucrative source of business for the hospitality sector. He also placed restrictions on foreign travel, constraining officials’ access to foreign capitals and capital. Government ministries and hospitals found that the president liked to arrive unannounced, “managing by walking about”. Unprecedented and unrealistic demands were made of the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA), with officials fired for failing to hit their targets and pursue the politically-connected.
It remains unclear whether such reformist zeal is indeed genuine, or merely a calculated ploy to rally supporters and destabilise opponents. It was not until July 2016 that Magufuli became chairman of CCM, but he made immediate plans to overhaul the party’s structures. The size of the national executive committee was reduced from 380 to 183, and the central committee from 34 to 24, while individuals were barred from holding more than one position. Although undoubtedly bloated, these organs did play an important role in resolving disputes and forging consensus within the party.
The president may be hoping that renewed competition between individuals will distract them from scrutinising his actions, or that those who share his fanaticism are able to advance. He should, however, be alive to the risk that this could embolden “political entrepreneurs” whose declining fortunes are rumoured to be responsible for a surge in the number of non-performing loans. Publicly at least, Magufuli claims to be prepared for the departure of Tanzania’s business elite from the ruling party, arguing that CCM would benefit from greater proximity to the grassroots.
Yet, the president’s gradualist approach to the energy sector, historically the primary source of corruption scandals, indicates that he may be allowing a degree of continuity amid a barrage of change. The national power company, Tanesco, remains heavily indebted as a result of unaffordable contracts with independent power providers. In any other domain, Magufuli would have ordered for these agreements to be torn up—but he hasn’t. He actually blocked a tariff increase which could have gone some way to easing Tanesco’s burden, claiming that it would undermine his commitment to provide industry with cheap energy. Magufuli’s real motive may, however, be to maintain a lucrative source of rents for the politically connected.
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