Opposition Fortunes Wane as Tanzania President Rules Supreme

Updated on
  • Leader Magufuli’s opponents become allies in his reform drive
  • Dissent becoming rarer in country amid arrests, media closures
John Magufuli Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

Two years into his rule, Tanzanian President John Magufuli has some unexpected new fans: his political opponents.

His chief rival in the 2015 vote, Edward Lowassa, has praised his reforms and urged others to support them. Another challenger became one of his regional commissioners, while two opposition lawmakers recently defected to the ruling party and will run as candidates in February by-elections.

These could be signs that Magufuli, who’s nicknamed “the bulldozer,” is finding popular support for his bids to tackle graft and challenge foreign companies like Barrick Gold Corp. and Bharti Airtel Ltd. for more revenue. But, following the arrests of other politicians and shuttering of several news outlets, some analysts say it also points to the decline of political dissent.

Tanzania’s opposition was always limited. Magufuli’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi party and its earlier iterations have ruled ever since the nation was unified in 1964, winning all five multi-party elections that began in 1995. All the same, rights groups and the opposition say there was leeway for criticism -- until recently. It comes as opposition movements elsewhere in East Africa feel the squeeze as leaders from Burundi to Uganda further entrench their reigns.

‘Losing Horse’

“Backing the opposition in an authoritarian state is backing a losing horse,” said Dan Paget, a doctoral candidate researching Tanzania at the University of Oxford. “People are defecting from the opposition not only because they love Magufuli, but because they fear him.”

The detention of some lawmakers last year for allegedly making inflammatory statements against the government sent a “strong message,” according to Aidan Eyakuze, executive director of civil-society group Twaweza East Africa.

Politicians may also be seeking career advancement, according to Benson Bana, political science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. “Some don’t see that the opposition will win State House anytime soon, so see working for the ruling party as a chance to shape policy,” Bana said.

The 2010 presidential candidate for the main opposition party Chadema, Wilbroad Slaa, was in November appointed ambassador to an as-yet unidentified country. This week he met Magufuli and praised him for solving problems he’d railed against in opposition, according to a presidential statement.

Opposition’s Clothes

There could be a simpler reason for the fresh support: Magufuli is pursuing policies that were the opposition’s. He’s also gained backing from his confrontations with foreign investors: a demand for $190 billion in back taxes from Acacia Mining Ltd. led to the company agreeing to establish a model to equally share the economic benefits from its mines and pay $300 million to the state as a “show of good faith.”

The Chadema party “was united by its opposition to corruption in government” and Magufuli has made tackling graft his “moral mission,” Paget said. “The same goes for mining: Chadema had won votes with their tough stance on mining companies for a decade, but in six months Magufuli garbed himself in the opposition’s clothes.”

Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency who was detained last year, acknowledged Magufuli’s anti-graft crusade is “taking the message away from the opposition.”

While presidential challenger Lowassa rebuffed an offer to rejoin the ruling party, others had fewer qualms. Lawrence Masha was home affairs minister in the government of Jakaya Kikwete, Magufuli’s predecessor, before shifting to the opposition in 2015. He moved back -- because of Magufuli.

Impact, Accountability

“While you may not always agree with the way he does things, his heart is in the right place and it is having an impact on the lives of everyday Tanzanians,” Masha said. “There is accountability in Tanzania with regards to corruption, for example, for the first time in a long time.”

It’s unclear how effective that drive has been. While a May 2017 survey by the Afrobarometer research network showed 72 percent of Tanzanians thought there’d been a decline in graft, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked it one point worse in 2016 than in 2013.

A June poll by Twaweza showed 71 percent of Tanzanians approved of Magufuli’s performance. While lower than the 96 percent he attracted a year before, it’s more than the 58 percent of the national vote he garnered to win him the presidency.

The opposition needs to fully question government claims of progress, Eyakuze said.

Kabwe said they must offer fresh policies as alternatives to the ruling party, especially in areas where they control local governments.

“Places where the opposition have a mandate, we need to show improvements in anti-corruption and development,” he said.

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