The President Who’s Eroding Tanzania’s Tolerance Seeks New Term

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John Magufuli has deployed a two-pronged approach to his bid for re-election: woo rural voters by pointing to all that he’s done for them, and curb free speech to stymie opposition parties.

The 61-year-old Tanzanian president is seeking a second term in an unusually tight election Wednesday that has seen a resurgence of his opponents -- some of whom have joined forces -- despite a ban on their public rallies. Magufuli’s effort to stifle the opposition and other alleged voter irregularities have fueled concerns about the fairness of the ballot.

“We have seen political violence, restrictions on media, and a candidate certification process that, by all appearances, gave a clear advantage to the ruling party,” U.S. Ambassador Donald Wright said in a statement Oct. 22. The European Union warned of “limitations” in the elections, saying “democracy thrives from freedom of expression and assembly.”

Nicknamed “the bulldozer” for bluntly speaking his mind and his uncompromising stance on corruption, Magufuli is expected by most analysts to win a new term. Still, his reign has resulted in the erosion of Tanzania’s civil society, prompting comparisons with neighboring Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who while earning praise for stamping out graft, has effectively quelled any form of dissent.

Hugely popular in his early years in office, Magufuli helped his largely agrarian nation of about 60 million people by waiving dozens of taxes and farm-gate fees for farmers. He removed 30,000 ghost workers and employees with fraudulent academic credentials from the civil service. He built more than 1,700 new health centers, started work on a 2,100-megawatt hydro-power project and revived the national carrier.

The President Who’s Eroding Tanzania’s Tolerance Seeks New Term

Since taking power in 2015, Magufuli also pandered to nationalist sentiments by confronting foreign companies for not giving the country its due to exploit resources like gold, diamonds, nickel and other minerals. A unit of Barrick Gold Corp. was presented with a whopping $190 billion tax bill -- a dispute the company has since settled with a $300 million payment and the creation of a mining joint venture with the government.

Then, in a country once hailed for its tolerant political culture, Magufuli began cracking down. Critics were assaulted, newspapers were shut and polls showing the government’s declining popularity were banned, the International Crisis Group said in a recent briefing.

Information has become tightly controlled -- Tanzania is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that stopped releasing coronavirus data -- and a range of cybersecurity laws restrict the use of social media. Artists, comedians and journalists face arrest if they’re perceived to be critical of the government.

Meanwhile, tax bills on foreign mineral companies, although popular, may have a chilling effect on investment. According to a World Bank report, Tanzania ranks 141 out of 190 economies in ease of doing business, trailing Rwanda and Uganda. The bank expects the country’s growth to slow to 2.5% in 2020 from about 7% in the three previous years, when it was buoyed by earnings from tourism and gold.

The President Who’s Eroding Tanzania’s Tolerance Seeks New Term

Magufuli has pledged several infrastructure projects to bolster the economy. China -- which has steered clear of criticizing the country’s election process, calling it an “internal” matter -- may get a bigger share of those projects, said Thabit Jacob, a Tanzanian analyst at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

But in the meantime, the country’s cooling economy raises concerns the government will resort to more repression, the International Crisis group said.

Tanzania has been ruled by versions of the same political party since independence from Britain in 1961, making it one of longest ruling entities in Africa. But tensions have run high since the return of Magufuli’s fiercest critic, human rights lawyer Tundu Lissu.

After surviving an assassination attempt in 2017, Lissu, 52, ended his self-imposed exile in Europe in July to become the presidential candidate of the main opposition Chadema party. He gained popularity among those who feel disenfranchised by Magufuli’s economic and political reforms. His campaign is centered on curbs on civil rights and free speech.

Opposition leaders have complained of widespread irregularities and alleged fraud ahead of the vote. Chadema Chairman Freeman Mbowe said last week that there was “massive manipulation” of voters’ registration records. The leader of the second-largest opposition party ACT-Wazalendo, Zitto Kabwe, said members of the security forces were being used to disrupt the vote.

Magufuli has repeatedly dismissed his political opponents as “puppets of imperialism,” saying they’re being used by foreign powers to sabotage government gains in tax collection and overhaul of the mining industry. Elections director Wilson Mahera rejected claims of rigging and vowed a transparent vote.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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