From Africa’s Darling To The “Bulldozer“ Of Freedoms: The Story Of President Magufuli Of Tanzania

How did the president of Tanzania, Dr. John Magufuli, go from a president who many saw as a reformer within and beyond the continent to the type of president who advocates for laws that curtail all freedoms in less than three and half years? This is the story of President Magufuli.

In October 2015, the electoral commission announced that Dr. John Magufuli had won the election, making him the 5th president of the Republic of Tanzania. President Magufuli breathed a new-found hope to the East African nation. He ran on an austerity ticket – telling the country that he would immediately cut down government spending and lessen corruption, a problem that the previous administration suffered with. As his nickname “the bulldozer” suggests, he immediately began fulfilling his campaign promises. He limited all foreign trips taken by civil servants – and those that were granted permission were not allowed to take large delegation – cancelled extravagant Independence Day celebrations and diverted money allocated to them to public service delivery, took action against ghost workers, and removed 150 senior officials from office to reduce corruption. These noteworthy efforts shed a new and positive light on Tanzania, which had not happened since Mwalimu Nyerere. His popularity led to the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? trending on Twitter, where Eastern Africans would joke that that should be the motto when anyone was about to indulge in any luxuries.

Deteriorating human rights conditions

The honeymoon period lasted a few months. Magufuli’s government started limiting freedoms at a slow rate. His first order of business was to limit the coverage of the state-run Tanzania Broadcasting Cooperation, and later to private business, when it comes to live parliamentary broadcasting. He wanted to make sure he did not face the same type of embarrassment as his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete, who was subject to public humiliation due to live parliamentary broadcasting of scandals within his administration.

His second order of business was to limit how political parties operate. With loud and defiant opposition parties who were calling for protests due to deteriorating human rights conditions less than a year after Magufuli took office, the police began to target them. Though freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Constitution, the police singled out opposition party rallies and shut them down. In addition to limiting their freedom of assembly, some suspect that the ruling party has been enticing opposition members to switch sides with money. The recent decision of Mr. Lowassa, who lost to Magufuli in the 2015 election, to return to the ruling party gave validity to those suspicions.

Untraditional groups and communities became targets. In a public remark, Magufuli attacked women who use contraceptives, calling them lazy. In another instance, he stated that he believes that pregnant school children should be expelled and should not be allowed to continue their schooling even after giving birth. In yet another instance, songs that were deemed “too sexual” or about politics have been banned.

The LGBTQIA community in Tanzania have also suffered tremendously under Magufuli’s government and its agencies. The most recent of these incidents came in November 2018 when the Regional Commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, issued a reckless statement where he urged the public to send in names of suspected members of the LGBTQIA community, who would be arrested. His comments led to homophobic attacks and arrests in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. Some of those arrested were subjected to inhumane anal examination, procedures which the UN Committee Against Torture has asserted there is no medical justification.

Like many dictatorships and authoritarian governments, Magufuli’s government is using the judicial system to ensure that his political party solidifies its power in Tanzania. Since coming to power in 2015, he has enacted new or amended laws, such as the Statistics Bill, Online Content Act, Media Service Act, and Political Party Act, that many have argued that restrict freedoms. The opposition leaders have been overwhelmingly affected by these laws. There are currently more than ten opposition leaders facing court cases on charges of sedition or publishing false information – where the interpretation of false information is anything contrary to the government’s narrative. The media has also been unreasonably targeted by these laws. Just a few weeks ago, Tanzania’s principal English newspaper, the Citizen, was banned for a week because it published a quote from another source, which the government viewed as false. Jamii Forum, one of the most used online media platforms in Tanzania, has been banned on two different occasions and is still in court disputing their trumped-up charges from the government.

Voicing concerns

Civil Society and Religious organizations have voiced their concerns about Magufuli’s government. In the open letter to the Tanzanian government, a coalition of 65 Civil Society Organizations urged the President to not only protect fundamental human rights but also to ensure that this current environment does not lead to the “disruption of national peace.” The letter also encouraged the return to the rule of law, especially from the police who frequently undermine the freedom to assembly given to all political parties. The Catholic Church of Tanzania denounced the undemocratic policies that are affecting the freedom of expression. Like the CSOs, the Catholic Church warned that if the situation continues, the foundations of peace and national unity will be destroyed.

Magufuli’s authoritarian policies have led to donors and investors looking on with increased alarm. The EU voiced their concern about the deteriorating human rights standards, especially after the President’s public remarks on pregnant schoolgirls. Pressure between the EU and Tanzania came to an all-time high in November 2018, when the EU ambassador was asked to leave the country. Following the “forced departure” of the EU ambassador, the EU released a statement further reiterating their concern, stating that “respect for human rights and the rule of law has been repeatedly undermined.” Some of the countries in the EU have halted their aid to Tanzania as they wait to see if the government will make any changes in their policies. The U.S. issued a travel warning to its citizens due to the alarming remarks from the Regional Commissioner about the impending arrests of members of the LGBTQIA community in Dar es Salaam. Though President Magufuli attempted to assure the donors that his policies are not infringing on people’s rights, he did not make too many concessions as he knows that China, a major development partner, is willing to give out loans without any conditions. Neither any African country nor the African Union has made any comments about how the new or amended laws have negatively impacted Tanzanians.

Future of Tanzania?

The future of Tanzania and the possibility of its reverting back to a functioning ‘democratic’ state seems bleak. The current administration has already shown that they do not value the rule of law, even stating that they will not follow the decisions from regional courts that invalidate some of the oppressive laws. With the stifling of opposition increasing at an alarming rate, especially with some of the government’s critics disappearing or facing assassination attempts, it will be important for the regional and international communities to keep a close eye on the country. One of the glimmers of hope that Tanzanians have is the fact that Magufuli assured the country that although some of his party mates want to alter the constitution to extend the term limit from five to seven years, he does not plan to do. However, similar sentiments were made by President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and he was able to stage a “constitutional coup.”

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