Prosperity or civil liberties? Tanzanian opposition demands both.

Why We Wrote This

Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s economic policies have borne fruit, but his crackdown on critics has galvanized the opposition. Can they carve out more space for democracy?

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Tanzania's President John Magufuli, who is running for reelection, stands in line to cast his vote Wednesday (third left). The populist Dr. Magufuli, who made his name in part by targeting corruption, now seeks a second five-year term in one of Africa's fastest-growing economies.

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John Magufuli, known as “the bulldozer,” will win today’s presidential elections in Tanzania. Of that there is very little doubt.

But he will not win them fair and square. His economic policy over the past five years may have raised living standards, but his government has also jailed political critics, shut down newspapers, and prohibited opposition candidates from standing in the election.

That approach, though, seems to be backfiring, and galvanizing the opposition Chadema party. Its leader, Tundu Lissu, has been drawing record crowds of supporters even though they risk being tear-gassed by the police, and opponents of the president, whose party has ruled Tanzania since independence in 1961, are growing bolder.

“In this campaign, Tanzanians have been saying that they deserve certain rights and that they won’t be bullied out of them so easily,” says one local political analyst. “We are looking at how far we are able to take this democratic notion.”

On the first full day he was president of Tanzania, in November 2015, John Magufuli walked unannounced into the country’s Ministry of Finance in Dar es Salaam and began asking questions.

“Who sits there?” he asked, according to a local news report, pointing to one of many empty desks in the ministry. “And who sits there, and there – and where are they now?”

The message was clear. If you worked for Tanzania’s government, and you didn’t work hard, you were being put on notice. Over the next three years, Mr. Magufuli’s administration slashed 16,000 “ghost workers” from the government’s payroll, canceled foreign trips for public servants, and diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from an Independence Day celebration to cholera prevention efforts.

And his government’s austerity, he often repeated, was making Tanzania richer. In 2019, the World Bank proclaimed the country “lower middle income” for the first time in its history.

But Dr. Magufuli’s well-earned reputation as “the bulldozer” extended beyond a no-nonsense approach to corruption and bureaucratic bloat. He also began shutting down media outlets and jailing critics. He cracked down on Tanzanians he deemed immoral, outlawing female contraceptives, banning pregnant girls from school and passing laws curtailing the rights of LGBTQ people.

AP
Residents line up to cast their vote Wednesday in Dodoma, Tanzania, in a presidential election that the opposition warns is already deeply compromised by manipulation and deadly violence.

Dr. Magufuli appears poised to sweep to victory again today in presidential elections fraught with allegations of suppression and intimidation of his opponents. 

But if the results of the poll are more or less a foregone conclusion, observers say the election still marks an important moment for the country. In particular, the bold support that many Tanzanians have shown for the opposition, despite the risks, suggests that Dr. Magufuli’s bulldozing blend of economic austerity and political repression has begun to backfire, pushing more and more Tanzanians away from a party that has ruled the country since its independence in 1961.

“Tanzanians have been asked to choose between economic growth and civil liberties, and many of them rightly see that as an unfair choice,” says Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, who studies Tanzanian politics. “So you have many ... who celebrate being lifted out of poverty, but the consequence of that is that they’ve also begun to demand more when it comes to political freedoms.”

Those demands, during this election campaign, have been loud, with Tanzanians turning out by the thousands for opposition rallies. “We’re looking at how far are we able to take this democratic notion. We’re asking what we want for our country, what kind of government, what kind of leadership,” says Elsie Eyakuze, a political analyst and columnist in Dar es Salaam.

Those questions have generally been met with severe repression. Over the past five years, Dr. Magufuli’s government has shut down publications and arrested journalists critical of its policies. When the International Monetary Fund questioned data pointing to booming economic growth last year, Mr. Magufuli simply blocked the release of its report.

Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, the government suspended and fined publications and journalists who challenged its official line – that it had completely contained the virus by May. (In fact, it had simply stopped recording new cases). Ahead of the election, Dr. Magufuli banned most election observers and assigned foreign journalists government minders to keep an eye on them. Earlier this week, police killed three people at an anti-government demonstration on the island of Zanzibar.

Meanwhile, Dr. Magufuli’s administration has tightened its grip on the country’s courts, limiting citizens’ ability to sue over unconstitutional laws, and making it possible to jail and deny bail to people charged with certain offenses – a tactic that is frequently used to wear down government critics.

AP
Opposition leader Tundu Lissu, left, hands in his electoral nomination form. Tanzanians go to the polls on Wednesday, with the future of one of Africa's most populous countries and fastest-growing economies at stake.

“You don’t win an election on the day of the vote. You win the day you start to make it impossible for the opposition to compete on equal footing,” says Fatma Karume, the former head of the Tanganyika Law Society, the bar association for mainland Tanzania. She herself has tasted the government’s wrath: she was permanently disbarred for bringing an “unprofessional and disrespectful” case against the country’s attorney general.

At the same time, support for the opposition cannot be measured only by its percentage of the final vote tally, she says. Throughout the election season, Tanzanians have shown outspoken support for Dr. Magufuli’s main challenger, Tundu Lissu, of the Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) party, who was the target of an assassination attempt by unknown attackers in 2017 and campaigned this year with a bullet still lodged near his spine.

Mr. Lissu drew huge crowds to his campaign rallies despite government attempts to suppress them by tear-gassing supporters, briefly suspending his campaign in early October for using “seditious language,” and arresting seven members of the opposition youth wing for “ridiculing the national anthem and flag” when they sang Tanzania’s national anthem while lifting their party flag.

It is nearly impossible to gauge the level of support for Chadema and Mr. Lissu, given the lack of credible and independent polling in Tanzania. However, the party won 42% of the vote in the last election, whose fairness was also disputed, and many point to the government’s suppression of opposition rallies and refusal to let many opposition parliamentary and local council candidates stand in today's elections as evidence that it is concerned about their rising power.

“In this campaign, Tanzanians have been saying that they deserve certain rights, and that they won’t be bullied out of them so easily,” says Ms. Eyakuze, the political analyst. “So if they want to attend a rally, they’re not willing to give up their right to do that just because the government is making it difficult.”

Ms. Karume says she is hopeful those gestures of support for the opposition won’t be lost on Dr. Magufuli if he is elected to a second term.

“I’m hoping he will recognize that people are demanding he change course,” she says. “Not selfishly, but for the sake of the country’s future.”

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