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After 600 days, whose government is it anyway?

Aidan Eyakuze|

Originally posted as an op-ed in The Citizen.

Dr John Pombe Magufuli completed about one third of his first term as president of the United Republic of Tanzania in early July 2017. Most in Tanzania would agree that it has been a frenetic period, with a lot of activity across a wide range of policy areas.

So how is he doing? More particularly, how does his record on governance and transparency look?

Open season on corruption…

Start with the positive. At the top of this list is the President’s campaign to hold those suspected of corruption, tax evasion and other mismanagement to account. Over 200 public officials have been fired. More than 10,000 “ghost workers” were removed from the payroll. There has been a clampdown on civil servants with forged academic certificates, and investigations have been launched into alleged tax irregularities in the country’s ports and mining sectors.

A former head of Tanzania’s anti-corruption agency once reportedly described senior figures in Tanzanian business and politics as “untouchable”. Under President Magufuli, that has changed. Some very high-profile business leaders, including Harbinder Sethi and James Rugemalira who were linked with the “Escrow” scandal in 2014, have found themselves in court, something the President’s predecessor did not achieve. And public opinion reflects this. In 2015, 28 per cent of citizens cited corruption as being among the top three problems facing Tanzania. Now, only 10 per cent of citizens cite it among the top three. Citizens also report that they’re seeing improvements in health and education services.

It remains too soon to corroborate this with hard evidence on health and learning outcomes, but it is not hard to believe that the President’s tough line on wrongdoing in public office has literally shocked many teachers, doctors and administrators into action. The passage of the Access to Information Act in September 2016 has the potential to turn the constitutional (but theoretical) right to information into a daily practical reality. However regulations to implement this act have yet to be drafted, and there is no indication that citizens’ access to information has changed in practice.

…and on civic space in Tanzania?

A look at the other side of the presidential performance balance sheet highlights some serious concerns. At the top of this list is the President’s approach to democracy. Civic space has been evaporating under his leadership. The Cybercrimes Act, described previously by government as a means to clamp down on some very real problems with online security, has proved very different in practice with a series of aggressive prosecutions of citizens expressing their opinions on social media.

Several journalists and opposition politicians face sedition charges, opposition rallies remain banned, and Mawio newspaper was recently suspended from publication for two years under the new Media Services Act, which was supposed to bring media oversight in Tanzania into line with democratic principles. Even the new-found willingness of the authorities to take on powerful interests seems to have its limits: the President directed the media to refrain from linking former presidents with the scandals that took place during their time in office – a transgression that earned Mawio its suspension. Most recently, the President reversed his party’s campaign commitment to allow schoolgirls who become pregnant to return to school after giving birth.

When civil society organisations objected against the discriminatory policy, they were threatened with deregistration by the Home Affairs minister. The combination of fearless action against corruption and clampdown on civic space sends mixed signals. But a closer look reveals a broader narrative to all of this. The anti-corruption agenda is sorely needed, but its execution is problematic when it overlooks due process and set aside the rights of anyone suspected of wrongdoing. Many have been denied a fair opportunity to defend themselves.

Also it is impossible to achieve a lasting reduction in corruption while also closing down space for the media, civil society, opposition parties and even the National Audit Office. This gives the noble anti-corruption campaign an unfortunate anti-democratic flavour. Citizens have long been frustrated with politicians who promise much but deliver little.

They are irritated by obstacles that stand in the way of real accountability and good public services. They are upset that the country has harvested little of her considerable natural wealth. President Magufuli is capitalising on these sentiments by doing things in very different ways from his predecessors – cutting through the bureaucracy, confronting vested interests, appealing to patriotism, and clamping down on critics.

A year ago, I suggested that this type of paternalistic “Father Knows Best” posture may produce an initially popular benevolent authoritarianism in the short term.

I also warned that without a deep sense of self-awareness and a healthy dose of moderation on the part of the President, it risked turning into bitter despotism.’ Back then, I was merely speculating and I hoped that reality would unfold differently, that life would not imitate art.

Looking back at the first third of President Magufuli’s first term, I am not so sure.

Open Government Partnership