Tanzania’s Descent Into Despotism



Three years ago this week, John Magufuli came to power in Tanzania amid much fanfare. He’s done much in the way of reform — but the slow creep towards autocracy is concerning

After John Magufuli became Tanzania’s fifth president in November 2015, it soon became clear that this was a man determined to govern differently. Within weeks of his inauguration, he had cancelled Independence Day celebrations, using the budgeted funds to fight cholera and calling on citizens to join him in a countrywide clean-up instead.

Enthralled by the rare sight of an African president leading by example, the Twittersphere buzzed with photographs of Magufuli sweeping the streets. As a new broom determined to clean up a sclerotic, inefficient and corrupt government, he made surprise visits to hospitals, the finance ministry and elsewhere, firing corrupt and underperforming civil servants and ministers. In 2016 he removed 16,000 "ghost" employees from the public sector payroll; last year, Al Jazeera reported on a further 10,000 fired for lacking adequate qualifications.

A crackdown on tax evasion and a shake-up of the revenue service resulted in 1.3-trillion Tanzanian shillings (about R8.3bn) in unpaid taxes collected in just two months at the beginning of his tenure. When he unveiled his cabinet, it featured just 34 ministers and deputy ministers; Jakaya Kikwete, his predecessor, had 60. Travel perks for ministers have been cut, and executives’ salaries at parastatals slashed.

Magufuli put his money where his mouth is too: last October he revealed that his salary is a mere TSh9m (about R57,000) a month — reportedly a third of Kikwete’s and markedly lower than that of many other African presidents (Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, earns just over R300,000 a month).

Magufuli’s reformist zeal extends beyond government: he has shown he wants to fundamentally remake the economy too, especially its mining sector. Though it contributes about 5% to GDP, mining is responsible for a third of Tanzania’s export revenue. In July 2017, Magufuli signed off on legislation that requires government ownership of at least 16% in mining companies, increases royalties on metals exports from 4% to 6% and imposes an additional 1% clearing fee. The law also allows the government to cancel or renegotiate gas and mineral contracts, and forbids companies from seeking international arbitration. Last year, exports of gold and copper concentrates were also banned in a bid to force mining companies to build a local smelter.

Though there is consensus that mining companies have previously had too sweet a deal in Tanzania and that the country deserves a greater share of its mineral wealth, there are signs that Magufuli is going too far.

In 2016, presidential committees determined that Acacia Mining owes the government $190bn in taxes, fines and interest — even though the company, the country’s largest miner, has gold reserves roughly worth just $10bn.

Acacia’s largest shareholder, Canada-based Barrick Gold, has been negotiating with the government on its behalf. In October 2017, it offered a one-off payment of $300m, a 16% share in Acacia’s three gold-and copper-producing Tanzanian mines and a 50% share of revenues from these. But more than a year later, the dispute is unresolved. And while Acacia continues to perform well, posting revenue of $165.6m in the third quarter, its market value has weakened by 70% over the past two years.

With no resolution in sight, Acacia has threatened to seek recourse through bilateral investment treaties; already it has taken the matter to the International Court of Arbitration. In October it asked Barrick if it could negotiate with the government directly. This may soon be unnecessary — according to Bloomberg, Barrick is mulling a buyout of Acacia’s minority shareholders (who own 36% of the company) once it concludes its takeover of Randgold.

In moves that suggest the government’s anticorruption crackdown has become a weapon in its tussle with the miner, two senior employees and a former executive were arrested in October by the Tanzanian Prevention & Combating of Corruption Bureau. Along with Acacia’s three Tanzanian business units, they face criminal charges relating to tax evasion, forgery and money laundering.

In a statement on October 23, the company described these arrests as "a significant escalation of governmental pressure", noting that "all of the matters that are the subject of criminal proceedings by the government of Tanzania relate to matters now being considered in the contractual arbitrations, with the majority relating to the historical structuring and financing" of the three mines, going back as far as 2008.

Magufuli’s heavy-handed approach has caused consternation abroad. Last month, the investment risk index in the "World Risk Report" revealed that investment security in Tanzania has weakened by 16% compared with the previous year (Africa’s average improved by 4%).

His new regulations resulted in Tanzania’s "perceived" legal score — based on an industry survey — dropping by 35.7%, suggesting an increasing hesitancy by foreign miners to consider investing in the country.

Back home, though, "The Bulldozer" has been lauded.

"Magufuli is popular. His war on corruption and fight with the miners won him widespread approbation," says Dan Paget, a Tanzania expert who recently concluded a PhD on the country’s politics at Oxford. "Many Tanzanians think that they have a clean president who is putting right what was wrong."

Magufuli’s hold on power — and his popularity, given constraints on the opposition — has been cemented by an embrace of authoritarian regulations that has resulted in stifling debate, protest and the sharing of information.

Though the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and its earlier incarnations have governed Tanzania since independence, its support showed signs of weakening ahead of Magufuli’s election. In the presidential polls, the CCM’s lead over the opposition runner-up shrank from 68% in 2005 to just 18%. But with rallies and protests now banned, the growth of the opposition is in doubt.

"The opposition rely on the rally as a means to reach voters. Their growing popularity up until 2015 was due in part to the tours which they took from town to town. In fact, nowhere in Africa is the mass meeting more central to politics than in Tanzania," Paget says.

Adding to opposition woes, Paget says, is that "Magufuli and his government have done much to engineer and exacerbate division with the Civic United Front, the leading opposition party in Zanzibar. They recognised a rival faction in the Civic United Front and have done everything they can to embolden and privilege that faction."

Civil liberties have not been immune to the creep of authoritarianism. This year, regulations forcing online content producers — even amateur bloggers — to register with the broadcast regulator came into effect. A licence costs about TSh2m — exorbitant in a country where the GDP per capita is about $900 (about TSh2m).

A licence can be revoked if the authorities deem an online publisher to have posted content that "causes annoyance, threatens harm or evil, encourages or incites crimes" or poses a threat to "national security or public health and safety". Blogging without a licence is illegal — offenders face a fine of at least TSh5m, a minimum of one year in prison, or both.

Under a sweeping cybercrime law which bans insulting the president, signed by Kikwete, two men were sentenced weeks apart in 2016 for criticising Magufuli — one on WhatsApp, the other on Facebook.

Traditional media has not been spared either. During Magufuli’s tenure, four newspapers and two private radio stations have been banned on the flimsiest of pretexts. Last June, Mawio newspaper was shuttered for two years for linking two former presidents to the government’s mining sector investigations. At the time, Angela Quintal, Africa programme co-ordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, argued that a ban that long was "tantamount to closing the publication", and accused Tanzania of "using public order as an excuse to frustrate the flow of information and public debate".

Amendments to the 2015 Statistics Act, passed in September and awaiting Magufuli’s signature, forbid the collection and dissemination of statistics without the permission of the National Bureau of Statistics. It also criminalises the publishing of statistics that contradict the state’s official ones or challenge their veracity.

The punishment for doing so? A fine of at least TSh10m, a minimum prison term of three years, or both.

An avowed social conservative, Magufuli decreed last year that pregnant girls may not return to school after they’ve had their babies — even where pregnancies have been the result of sexual violence. In July he called on "lazy" prisoners to be kicked and forced to work "day and night". And in September he accused birth control users of being "lazy". "They do not want to work hard to feed a large family," he said, urging women to abandon contraceptives.

Soon after, the health ministry ordered that US-funded family planning adverts be pulled from TV and radio.

Shisha (water pipe) smoking was banned in 2016. Since September, women MPs have been banned from wearing false eyelashes and false nails, as well as short skirts and jeans.

So, while Magufuli’s policies may vary in impact and significance, cumulatively they illustrate the far-reaching ways in which his party is seeking to control — or at least have a say in — virtually every facet of Tanzanian life.

As the 2020 elections loom, Paget predicts a "continuation of the new status quo". With a fractious and weakened opposition unable to offer meaningful resistance, the shift towards autocracy seems likely to continue.