Enter the bulldozer

The legacy of Julius Nyerere’s state and state-run economy in Tanzania is a government (and ruling party) that values decree over debate, and control over entrepreneurship. John Magufuli is a model student of this system in its ideal form.

Military parade at the inauguration of President John Magufuli of Tanzania. Credit: GCIS

As with any foundational figure, Julius Nyerere’s memory bears all the contradictory passions of Tanzania’s modern history, and his name becomes a talisman for all sorts of politically charged commentaries on history and its relevance for the present. This entire symbolic infrastructure is a means by which we explore the influence of the past upon the present. In Tanzania the past includes Nyerere’s one-party state, but also the paternalist colonial state, and the undisciplined state of Tanzania’s present. Actual political change seems to happen very slowly in today’s Tanzania, and as a result the youthful society and growing economy seem to be hurtling into the future faster than institutions can adjust. Nyerere was famously quoted by the journalist William Edgett Smith a saying “we must run while they walk.” The people are running, but until last year, the government seemed to be walking very leisurely indeed.

Enter the Bulldozer. It is the nickname – perhaps more popular among foreign reporters than the Tanzanian masses – of the current president, John Pombe Magufuli. Formerly a hyperkinetic and hard  nosed minister of works, Magufuli was elected last October with a 58% majority, which is the lowest margin of victory for a Tanzanian president in history, and even that total is disputed by the opposition parties. The Bulldozer nickname is apt in its reference to his eagle-eyed oversight of thousands of miles of new paved roads across the country during the last administration. Under his new administration the nickname refers to his attitude toward the big businessmen and “big potatoes” of government bureaucracy, flattening big and small alike in his quest to get people on the job, to eliminate waste and corruption in government, and (seemingly) to silence voices of protest.

Magufuli’s arrival in the State House – and immediate visits to ports, factories and government offices in search unpaid taxes and ghost workers – was a refreshing bit of political theater showing he was ready to take on all special interests in an effort discipline a widely resented culture of official inefficiency and graft. His energetic insistence on official integrity recalled the last president still seen as incorruptible, Julius Nyerere himself. As he then sacrificed $500,000,000 in American aid and soft loans on a point of political pride, and seemed to lean toward more regulation, labor protections and trade restrictions on top of his tax collection efforts, businesspeople began to see not a little of Nyerere’s short-sightedness. Anti-corruption efforts measures by themselves were not a strategy for economic growth. In fact, without clearing the deadwood of socialist-era regulation, anti-corruption efforts could well cut out the (illegal) shortcuts that had long allowed businesspeople to navigate the immobilizing forest of regulation.

Thirty years after Nyerere’s retirement, and three subsequent administrations widely perceived as increasingly corrupt, economic growth has been clipping along at 6%-7% annually during a period of stagnation in Europe and Latin America. More than just sour grapes from businesspeople coughing up something closer to their lawful share of taxes, their frustration stemmed from the looming shadow of the failed state-controlled economy under Nyerere’s socialist government. Contradictory incentives and political demands for state-owned enterprises in the 1970s created fertile ground for the ubiquitous habits of embezzlement and bribery that came to define bureaucratic management at all levels of Tanzanian society. Trade restrictions and an overvalued currency created shortages of everything but the most basic products of the agrarian economy by the 1980s. Nyerere blamed these problems on an unjust global economic structure and an epidemic of dishonest bureaucrats, whose arrest and dismissal would return the system to a level of productivity that had never existed.

As Magufuli proposed this year to ban the import of used clothing and refuse a long-in-the-works Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, many hear echoes of Nyerere’s truculent temperment. Magufuli’s efforts, like Nyerere’s, to identify and prosecute corrupt officials easily expanded into a more general restriction on any criticism or opposition to his efforts. Magufuli refused to revisit the short-circuited election in Zanzibar (the reason for the refusal of the US $500 million), banned political rallies during non-election years (i.e. the next four years), and has used cyber-security laws to impose fines and jail terms on online critics and to shut down media outlets. Nyerere justified his one-party state and restrictions on free speech in service to the rapid development of an impoverished postcolony and the need to foster national unity in a post-colonial world full of ethnic conflict and civil war. Worthy goals, but in the case of the economy, haste led to its proverbial waste.

The legacy of Nyerere’s state and state-run economy is a government (and ruling party) that values decree over debate, and control over entrepreneurship. Magufuli is a model student of this system in its ideal form. He represents a return to Nyerere’s integrity and energetic efforts at good governance, but also a return to Nyerere’s presumption that opposition is mere obstruction. The tragedy of Nyerere’s time was that the lack of real debate over his policies created outcomes that undermined his goals of good governance and economic growth. Magufuli’s well-intentioned emulation of Nyerere’s purposeful leadership may lead to similar disappointment if he cannot find a way to adapt to a mature political field of serious opposition parties offering debate, criticism and considered policy alternatives.

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