President John Pombe Magufuli has a strong claim to be Africa’s most controversial sitting president. He has divided opinion both domestically and internationally. On 28 October 2020, he stands for re-election for a second term. In the national election, a battle of ideas has been fought.
On one side, behind President Magufuli, stands Africa’s longest-ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) or ‘The Party of the Revolution’. In the years preceding President Magufuli’s first term, the CCM had succumbed to a form of corrupt money politics. President Magufuli began his first term by dramatically cleaning up the house in a campaign to ‘lance the boils’, tumbua majipu. He and his allies enacted the discovery and punishment of corruption countless times. In many commentators’ eyes, this earned him the status of a populist. Indeed, the victims of corruption, on whose behalf he claimed to act, were wanyonge – ‘the downtrodden’.
However, CCM presented its cause in terms which were subtly different from populism. They waged a struggle not from below, but from above. In the classic populist imagination, the (low) people fight against the (high) elite. By contrast, CCM’s campaign was directed by President Magufuli, his lieutenants, and increasingly the senior ranks of the party from the highest echelons of power against lazy bureaucrats and corrupt businesspersons. Far from being anti-elitist, they portrayed themselves as a virtuous, vanguard elite which acted on the people’s behalf. To express this departure from populism, it can be called elitist-plebeian.
The fight against corruption was in turn one front in what was imagined as a larger war. In this grander conflict, the objective was the development of Tanzania. The opponents against whom the nation strove were imperialists – mabeberu – a front of foreign enemies, some exploitative, some predatory, and some subversive, who profited from Tanzania’s poverty and wished to preserve it. President Magufuli and the CCM conceived their project as an awakening to and a rebellion against this international exploitation. In this regard, their project was nationalist.
This involved challenging transnational mining companies and other foreign exploiters. However, ultimately, they envisaged industrialisation. By transforming Tanzania economically, they planned to acquire strength against and independence from foreign exploitation. In the pursuit of this transformation, they prioritised the construction of dams and factories, and the accumulation of planes and trains. In this regard, their project was developmentalist.
The future that they envisaged was capitalist and modernist, one that would deliver widespread prosperity, but not the end of exploitation. Nonetheless, they construed it as the fulfilment of the long-forgotten design of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who espoused a philosophy of Socialism and Self-Reliance, Ujamaa na Kujitegemea. In this regard, their project was restorationist.
President Magufuli and the CCM took an extremely authoritarian course, the breadth and depth of which cannot be emphasised enough. They justified this authoritarian agenda in relation to their nationalist, economic struggle. Democracy needed to be confined in the service of development. Critics needed to be silenced because they harmed the nation. Opposition ought to be arrested because they were agents of imperialists.
The opposition stood chiefly against this assault on democracy. In the past, the leading opposition party – Chadema – had made anticorruption the central plank of its platform. But it blunted its anticorruption message by nominating an allegation-tarnished CCM defector – Edward Lowassa - as its presidential nominee in 2015. In the wake of President Magufuli’s elitist-plebeian campaign against corruption, Chadema struggled to gain purchase on anticorruption. Instead, it focused on President Magufuli’s tyranny. It wove together media censorship, a ban on public meetings, the disappearance of journalists, and many other authoritarian acts into a national programme of oppression. It nominated Tundu Lissu as its standard bearer. Perhaps more than any other nominee could have, Lissu came to represent resistance to tyranny. Lissu narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2017 which he and many others alleged was carried out at President Magufuli’s behest.
In the preceding five years, Chadema had often struggled to connect this critique of tyranny to everyday material wellbeing. But in the 2020 election campaign, it linked them more directly through a liberal critique which re-emerged in its message. It criticised the imposition of arbitrary taxes as predatory. It portrayed President Magufuli as an oppressor of businesses, and attacks on business as attacks on employers. It criticised President Magufuli’s ‘development of things’ like planes and dams and portrayed it as distinct from and rival to the ‘development of people’. This contained an – often implicit – criticism of state-led development.
The opposition party Alliance for Change Tanzania-Wazalendo (ACT-W) had long directly connected President Magufuli’s programme to material suffering. His 2015 campaign slogan had been hapa kazi tu – ‘only work here’ – a double promise that corruption would be absent and that the government would work hard. ACT-W leader Zitto Kabwe turned this CCM slogan on its head. He called for kazi na bata – ‘work and duck’. On one level, this implied that President Magufuli provided work to the exclusion of wealth, denying Tanzanians the good life that ‘duck’ signified. Furthermore, by calling for work it suggested that Tanzanians lacked employment, giving expression to concerns of popular economic hardship.
One of the casualties of Tanzania’s 2020 election campaign, surely, should be the tired cliché that African politics is short of ideas. President Magufuli’s project advances not just policies, but visions. An elitist-plebeian vision of where corruption is located, and from where it is being disciplined. A forward-looking developmentalist vision of the country’s future. A nationalist vision of the opponents arrayed against it. A restorationist, backward-looking vision of the path the nation should take. A vision which justifies the authoritarian path it is taking. The opposition meets these visions with its own, a vision of President Magufuli as tyrant, of the state as predatory, and of opposition as resistance, visions which interpret Magufuli’s project not as developmental, but ruinous. Visions of the future and how it should be achieved which conflict with the CCM’s own.
Another casualty may be Tanzania’s multiparty democracy itself. While there has been a battle of ideas, it has been on grossly unequal terms. If the CCM achieves the sweeping gains it seems determined to make, it will be well-placed to consolidate and take to new heights – or depths – its authoritarian agenda.