An unprecedented transition process has been set in motion following the unexpected death of President John Magufuli early in his second term, with Tanzania’s former vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan sworn in to take office until the end of the current presidential term in 2025, becoming the country’s first female head of state.
Magufuli’s global notoriety peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to his discredited claims the virus had been eliminated from Tanzania and his outright rejection of modern treatments and vaccines. Indeed, the president’s overall leadership style was consistent only in its ability to divide opinion both at home and abroad.
Although initially lauded for his anti-corruption drive when he came to power in 2015, concerns mounted swiftly as repressive laws were used to limit basic civic freedoms and silence critics. The new president inherits an office which thrived on this polarization under Magufuli, harnessing it to stoke nationalist sentiment and justify crackdowns on opposition.
Economic success lacking inclusivity
Magufuli’s supporters will champion his record of economic growth which saw Tanzania attain lower-middle income status and avoid a pandemic-induced recession, as well as a raft of major infrastructure projects completed or in development and a series of high-profile confrontations with foreign investors which were celebrated as national victories.
The deep resonance of these achievements should not be dismissed but the swaggering headlines masked a more complex reality. Relative macroeconomic stability and strong headline GDP growth ultimately failed to deliver sustained improvement of the lives of society’s poorest, and the rate at which Tanzania has been able to translate economic growth into poverty reduction ranks among the world’s worst, far below the continent average.
Magufuli relentlessly pursued costly infrastructure megaprojects and challenges to prevailing government narratives were increasingly met with intimidation and arbitrary arrests, together with legislation to close down debate online, in the media, and in political opposition – all justified as necessary sacrifices to a rhetoric of national rebirth and transformation. The culmination of all this was his disputed re-election in October 2020 which delivered a supposed record margin of victory and established de facto one-party rule.
But Tanzania’s slide into autocracy was always about much more than just Magufuli. He inherited repressive laws introduced in the latter days of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete and a range of structural and institutional pressures continue to shape the options available to his successor Samia Hassan, despite the lack of formal constitutional checks on the vast power of the presidency.
Tanzania’s entrenched ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) is paralysed by its fear of a first electoral defeat and split by internal competition. Past presidents have been forced to negotiate a complex process of elite bargaining and political manoeuvring within the CCM to secure their nomination – so the constitutionally-mandated succession of the vice-president throws this formula out of the window.
The CCM also now stands without either a chairperson or a permanent general secretary for the first time in its history, raising the stakes for the new president at the party’s 2021 national congress.
Freedom of expression is crucial first step
It is crucial the rapidly unfolding – and divisive – debate on Magufuli’s legacy does not neglect these factors. The new administration must oversee a re-opening of debate and public space to allow both eulogies and criticisms of Magufuli to be freely aired.
Reframing Tanzania’s response to COVID-19 is a first major test. Denouncing Magufuli’s outright denials – including dropping charges against those arrested for challenging them – is a clear opportunity for the new government to stamp its authority, rebuild tense relations with regional neighbours such as Kenya and Rwanda, and attract international support.
This could also pave the way for an international re-engagement not forthcoming under Magufuli’s fundamentally domestic leadership. Even prior to the pandemic, he visited just seven countries while in office, none of them outside Africa.
Speculation remains rife that Magufuli’s denial of the virus ultimately cost him his life, as it already has for many other senior Tanzanian figures. And the final three weeks of his presidency, fading from public sight as the rumours swirled, was a microcosm of Tanzania’s broader approach to the pandemic – marked by outright denials from key officials and arrests of citizens for spreading information, before an eventual reversal.
The fact such repression continued unchecked while the president was incapacitated sends a warning sign to those hoping for an immediate change of direction under a new administration, and survey data suggests a deeply entrenched denial among citizens will be difficult to shift.
Magufuli ascended to the presidency as a compromise candidate but ended his life as a leader with a reputation for being anything but that, so Tanzania’s new president Samia Hassan, placed in power by the constitution, must follow a different trajectory. Only a progressive embrace of dialogue and compromise can provide the platform to rebuild confidence in the country’s fragile foundations.