Tanzania's 'Bulldozer' President Risks Flattening His Country's Reputation and Revenue

7 MINS READMar 1, 2019 | 10:30 GMT
Tanzanian President John Magufuli reviews an honor guard on Dec. 9, 2017, as he attends a ceremony marking the 56th anniversary of his country’s independence.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli, nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” walks alongside troops during a ceremony in the country’s capital of Dodoma.

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • As Tanzania’s 2020 general elections approach, President John Magufuli and his ruling party will not modify their controversial domestic policies due to their popular support. 
  • As a result, Tanzania’s relations with the European Union and other Western powers will likely remain weak for the foreseeable future, cutting the country off from Europe's foreign aid in the process.
  • Other countries such as China are unlikely to step in and fill the funding gaps left by Tanzania's eroding relationship with Europe.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

It’s full steam ahead for Tanzanian President John Magufuli, nicknamed "the Bulldozer." As Tanzania’s president since 2015, Magufuli has overseen the East African country's recent shifts toward greater resource nationalism and fewer political freedoms. Despite warnings from opposition groups and other countries of the threats posed to Tanzania's democracy, the president and his ruling party have continued to pursue hard-line policies that suppress dissent and foreign influence. 

This has led to the souring of relations between Tanzania and its biggest development partner, the European Union, in recent months, along with the freezing of millions of dollars of aid from Brussels. But Tanzania's ruling government remains focused on securing its power in next year's general elections, and will thus be reticent to change its ways before then — leaving the country to fend without its major revenue stream.

The Big Picture

Tanzania is a middle power in Africa that relies on foreign aid and investment to further its development goals. The recent erosion of its ties with the European Union and other Western players amid the government’s controversial policies has, once again, placed the spotlight on the trajectory of the country. Whether the sides will come to an agreement and mend their relations will depend on Tanzania's government changing its ways — something it has proven increasingly reticent to do.

A Crackdown on Corruption ... and Dissent 

Tanzania's ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM) has essentially been in power since the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in the early 1960s — making it one of the longest-ruling parties in the world. And while other liberation-era parties in Africa have struggled to maintain their dominance over the decades, the CCM appears to be strengthening its grasp on power — thanks, in large part, to the popularity of President John Magufuli.

Magufuli's rise to the presidency was largely a reaction to several high-profile corruption scandals that erupted under his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete, which weakened popular support for the CCM. Faced with potential adverse poll results in 2015, the party put forth Magufuli as a hard-nosed, anti-corruption candidate. In fulfilling his campaign promises, Magufuli embarked on an ambitious crackdown on corruption that initially earned praise from inside and outside the country. But his efforts have had decidedly mixed results, as Tanzania continues to struggle with pervasive corruption at both high and low levels of society. 

The full wrath of Maguflui's hard-nosed mentality, however, has taken more shape in his staunch intolerance of political dissent. Most recently, the government passed amendments to its Political Parties Act in January, which would give the country’s registrar of political parties, who is appointed by the president, legal immunity, as well as sweeping powers to deregister political parties and jail anyone accused of "unauthorized civic engagement." The CCM and its supporters argue that the proposed changes, which are still awaiting Magufuli’s signature, are intended to increase transparency in the country's political parties. However, the controversial amendments have been widely condemned by civic groups and other watchers of Tanzania’s democracy, who view it as an attempt to suppress opposition groups.

Late last year, Tanzania's parliament also introduced a ban on gathering statistics that were not sanctioned by the government, which critics have warned would have a chilling effect on much-needed research across the country. Several Tanzanian newspapers that have printed criticisms of the government have also shuttered since the passing of stricter social media and blogging laws in April 2018.

Map of Tanzania

The government’s pursuit of these hard-line measures underlines a deeper reality inherent in Tanzanian politics: While the ruling CCM opened up the political system to multiparty politics in the 1990s, it has shown no willingness to surrender its power in the decades since. But other countries are starting to take notice, questioning the legitimacy of Tanzania's democracy with Magufuli at its helm.

Bickering With Brussels 

Tanzania's controversial domestic affairs have led to the recent downfall of its relations with Europe, which first began to sour in the fall of 2018 after the European Union recalled its ambassador in Tanzania, citing "undue pressure" from local authorities. Shortly thereafter, the government's crackdown on LGBT rights — in which authorities called on citizens to report men suspected of being gay — led Brussels to halt more than $88 million in budgetary aid. Then in mid-November, the European Union began a comprehensive review of its relationship with Tanzania, an unprecedented act that remains in progress.

Meanwhile, Tanzania's eroding relations with Brussels have also prompted Denmark, Tanzania’s second-largest bilateral donor, to publicly question the trajectory of Tanzania’s democracy, leading to it to freeze $9 million in aid. In addition, Magufuli's proposition that pregnant girls should not be allowed to continue their schooling recently triggered the World Bank to initially withdraw a more than $300 million loan to help fund education in the country.

Despite the onslaught of retaliatory actions from Europe, Tanzania’s government has remained reluctant to change its ways — a trend that will likely continue as the country's political elites gear up for the 2020 elections. Many Tanzanians, especially those in more rural areas, have applauded Magufuli’s tough anti-corruption efforts and his attacks on opponents, including foreign powers perceived to be meddling in the country’s domestic affairs. Therefore, Magufuli and his ruling CCM party are unlikely to modify their popular policy stances as they seek to shore up support ahead of next year's vote — even if that means further alienating themselves from the West.

Tanzania’s government shows little signs of moderating itself ahead of next year's elections. If anything, Magufuli's CCM party appears intent on setting the rules of the game even more in its favor as it seeks to solidify its power.

Popular support, fueled by the rise of resource nationalism, has also aided the government’s hard-line measures against foreign multinational companies in recent years. The rise of Tanzania’s resource nationalism has largely been a reaction to sweetheart deals the government struck with foreign investors in the 1990s, which were designed to help jump-start the country’s mining sector. Over time, however, these deals have become associated with corruption, which the Magufuli administration has used to both boost its political support and fill its coffers with more royalties from tougher deals with foreign companies.

Nowhere to Turn 

Without any indication of when the European Union will complete its review of its relations with Tanzania, it remains unclear how far Brussels and its member states are willing to go to rebuke Tanzania's domestic affairs. In the meantime, Magufuli has sought to increase Tanzania's ties with countries elsewhere in the world to help mitigate the funding gap left by Europe. Never one to mince his words, the president said that he much prefers the "condition-free" aid of China, for example. And while this was a clear jab at the European Union and others perceived to be meddling in Tanzania’s internal affairs, Magufuli’s hopes that China, India or other countries will step in and fill the void is unlikely — especially if China’s own economic slowdown requires Beijing to focus its attention and resources at home.

But Tanzania’s government shows little signs of moderating itself ahead of the 2020 elections. If anything, Magufuli's CCM party appears intent on setting the rules of the game even more in its favor as it seeks to solidify its place in power. Therefore, Tanzania’s government will have no choice but to make do with less external support for the time being — opening up funding gaps in the process.

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