Exit the bulldozer, enter Mama Samia

Has the recent death of Tanzania’s president John Magufuli created new political possibilities?

Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

It is almost certain that Tanzania’s late president, John Magufuli, died of COVID-19 in mid-March, but anyone even hinting as much did so on pain of arrest. What is also certain is that despite all the scolding from the American embassy and the BBC for his retrograde habits of rule, the former president was truly popular in Tanzania. His supporters could point to endless examples of newly upgraded roads, railways, and “flyovers” that eased congestion at major intersections. Completing the world’s longest heated oil pipeline will provide Tanzania with a share in Uganda’s oil windfall. Traffic tickets and licenses were no longer problems to be fixed with a bit of “tea” for the tillerman. Tax bills were no longer a friendly negotiated price for doing business, but were calculated by government accountants who, although they didn’t always understand the total costs of running a business, could estimate gross revenues that dwarfed civil service salaries. Confronting entrenched connections between businessmen and ruling party politicians required power, and “the Bulldozer” was more ruthless than anyone had expected.

With his passing, he has paved a wide-open path for one of the most unlikely presidents of the new century. At her swearing-in as president, the former vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, responded to those who might ask, “Can this woman be the President of the United Republic of Tanzania?” She told the crowd of political leaders and party cadres “that the one standing here … is the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, in the body of a woman.” She noted that the former president rarely traveled abroad, and that she had good relations in the international community because she had served as Tanzania’s lead diplomat outside of East Africa. A quiet but tough technocrat in hijab, “Mama Samia” managed the traumatic transition with grace and is now taking forceful charge of the government, promoting experienced civil servants and hinting at a more business-friendly regime. There is a cautious hope among opponents of the ruling party that she may take a more humane attitude toward criticism and the virtues of multiparty politics, and she has already created a new scientific task force to address the pandemic that her predecessor had ignored when he wasn’t mocking vaccines and prescribing quack cures.

A couple of years ago, I took an upcountry bus out of Dar es Salaam. A few hours into the journey, we pulled into one of the weigh stations along the heavily trafficked highway that runs westward to Zambia. In the last decade, these weigh stations had slowly come back to life. They offered the road’s thin layer of asphalt—and the centuries-old route underneath it, pioneered by porters and slave traders, missionaries and colonial armies—some protection from the massive double- and triple-hitched cargo trucks grinding their way along. In the 21st century, the two-lane road was cut with deep ruts and sedan-swallowing potholes that marked the disparity between the engines and the engineering. The first-term president, John Magufuli, was a former minister of works, famous for firing contractors and telling builders to start all over if their quality did not pass muster. Our bus was stopped at the weigh station for being overloaded with cargo in the luggage hold. In previous administrations, this infraction may have been easily fixed with a small bribe that the bus company took as the cost of doing business and that the weigh station operator saw as a friendly tip for his concern about the passengers’ prompt arrival. On this occasion, the station operator was apologetic, with dozens of irritated passengers milling about. He was not angling for a bigger bribe—if it were up to him, he’d just let us go—but if we were weighed again up ahead and were overweight, it would be said that he was lax in his job, possibly even corrupt. The only solution was to unload some cargo. Eventually, a businesswoman reluctantly allowed her massive, wrapped bundles to be unloaded and to spend the night at the weigh station, with the promise that tomorrow’s bus would pick them up. People grumbled but understood. This was a new, much needed, administrative culture where rules were rules, at least at the level of highway weigh stations.

Magufuli was an “accidental” president in 2015, coming to the fore when ruling party-connected factions chose him as a compromise candidate untainted by the corruption of original frontrunner Edward Lowassa, who promptly shifted to the opposition. Magufuli surprised the ruling elite when he took in hand the reins of a political system that retained the essential structure of a socialist party-state. He made a show of exposing ghost workers, confronting corruption, and arresting opposition politicians and critical journalists. Locally, his model resembled that of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, who rationalized his censorious state with the legacy of genocide. Globally, he followed the lead of Xi Jinping in China, who offered the Chinese model of a one-party state that provided rational overlordship, facilitating economic growth and keeping big business in line. Compared to the political gridlock and misinformation plaguing Western democracies, 1970s-style bureaucratic authoritarianism seemed like a means of breaking the corrupt and inefficient habits plaguing government and business alike. But when Magufuli spent nearly a billion dollars to buy a fleet of brand-new jets for the money-losing national carrier, critics reasonably wondered whether government-run businesses could be responsible stewards of taxpayer money. The latest auditor general report indicated gross mismanagement at the airline and the possibility that its planes could be impounded by foreign creditors. Magufuli had directed all government business toward the new Air Tanzania, which mostly poached routes from an unglamorous, locally based private carrier, Precision Air. With a modest business model built upon the diligent maintenance of its own staff and workaday propeller planes, Precision had profitably plied East African skies for three decades before facing large losses in recent years.

One of Magufuli’s first actions in 2015 was to fire the head of the port authority after a surprise visit by his prime minister uncovered nearly 3,000 missing shipping containers. Within a week of taking office, Suluhu has ordered an investigation of the port authority and fired its current director, a chief tax collector, and her predecessor’s spokesman; the last of these was also the director of the communications authority which had become notably censorious during Magufuli’s presidency. She replaced them all with experienced civil servants, and some of her targets suggest that her predecessor’s showy housecleaning may not have been as effective as advertised. President Suluhu is proceeding with businesslike efficiency. Rather than making surprise visits to hospitals and construction sites, the new president has been remaking the cabinet to her liking. Administrative shuffling is the key power wielded by Tanzanian presidents in a country ultimately ruled by institutions, political parties, and governmental ministries—not by individuals.

Power in Tanzania is bureaucratic, and when the former president’s death was announced, opposition figures made firm calls for prompt transition according to constitutional procedure, which is what happened. The Tanzanian press and political opposition have expressed hope that the new president will bring a technocratic and more democratic approach to the presidency. Tundu Lissu, the presidential candidate who represented a coalition of opposition parties in the last election, has expressed the same hope, but is reserving judgment precisely because power does not reside solely in the presidency but in the party that has retained power for all of Tanzania’s independent history. Lissu was the target of an assassination attempt in a guarded government compound for ministers of parliament in 2017, which he believes was ordered from the top, and which was only the most egregious of a pattern of police killings,disappearances, and harassment of critics and opposition figures. Samia Suluhu, as vice president, was the only representative of Magufuli’s administration to visit Lissu in the hospital.

Despite her quiet bureaucratic allegiance to her former boss, Suluhu showed moments of independence even as vice president, bucking his revival of the policy of expelling pregnant girls from school. She is now taking a more scientific approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and hinting that she will ease some of her predecessor’s more authoritarian policies towards the press. “We should not ban the media by force,” Suhulu said recently. “Reopen them, and we should ensure they follow the rules.” Whether she will release investigative journalists who have not been seen for years remains an open question. The business community is pleased with her surprise choice for vice president, Phillip Mpango. Another career civil servant, Mpango was willing to act independently of the party’s intimidating factions and favorites. In 2018, he publicly upbraided the powerful regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, for his refusal to pay taxes on 20 containers of furniture that were ostensibly donated for schools, hinting that he would resign if forced to back down. “I took an oath to enforce tax laws and I will not waver,” said Mpango when he was Minister of Finance and Planning under Magufuli. “On that I’m ready to ask the president … that that’s it. It’s enough … The rule of law must prevail. We will not victimise anyone nor will we fear anyone when it comes to enforcement of taxes.”

In February, Mpango was filmed coughing through a press conference. He recovered but was hospitalized long enough that Magufuli had to counter premature rumors of his death during the requiem for another aide, the chief secretary John Kijazi, who had just died after a two-week hospitalization ostensibly for a heart attack. On February 27, the day before he disappeared from view, Magufuli appointed the leftist academic, Bashiru Ally, as the new chief secretary, and some expected that Suluhu Hassan would appoint him as her vice president. Despite a lack of political experience, Ally had served as general secretary of the ruling party, appointed by Magufuli to replace one of the party’s more effective administrators, Abdulrahman Kinana. Kinana had shepherded Magufuli to victory in 2015 but resigned in 2018, around the time Lutheran, Catholic, and Muslim religious leaders protested the government’s authoritarian turn. Last year, Kinana and several other party veterans were censured by the party for allegations of conspiring against the president. So when Magufuli fell sick in late February, Bashiru Ally was shifted from the party into the state house as a loyal caretaker to replace Kijazi, who had died on February 17. That was also the day that the renowned opposition figure Maalim Seif Hamad, then serving as vice president in a power-sharing government in Zanzibar, passed away. Hamad told the world that he had COVID-19 and warned people to be careful. Despite his willingness to confront the political establishment, Seif Hamad was a stabilizing influence, always willing to cool down Zanzibari opposition supporters and negotiate with the government for peaceful democratic progress. Come 2025, his loss will likely be the more palpable one in Tanzania’s political firmament.

Further Reading

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.