Soon after coming to office in 2015, Tanzania’s President, John Magufuli, won plaudits for living a thrifty lifestyle, shunning the usual excesses that accompany high office. The hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo comically celebrated his willingness to cut the fat of economic excess and his fight against graft.
But while many Tanzanians aspire to emulate some of Magufuli’s decisions, others have pointed to a worry slide in democratic oversight. The recent detention of journalist Erick Kabendera encapsulates this best.
Kabendera, an investigative journalist known for holding the government to account, was arrested by a group of plain-clothed policeman in his home in July last year. The charge: irregularities over his citizenship.
As public concern grew over this blatant injustice, authorities clarified his citizenship status, before accusing the journalist of financial impropriety. Kabendera, prosecutors claimed, had used two companies as “vehicles of money laundering”, and had failed to file tax returns.
He was held for seven months without trial, before international pressure forced the government to release him last week on the condition he pay US$108 immediately, and nearly US$120,000 over the next six months.
Amnesty International, a rights group, has deplored the government’s actions. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s east and southern Africa director, said “There is absolutely no justice in what transpired in the Dar es Salaam court”, calling the public to “commit to ensuring that everyone can freely exercise all their human rights and stop the politically motivated persecution of dissidents and journalists”.
But the case of Kabendera is merely symptomatic of what has been described as Magufuli’s “government by gesture”. The president’s rhetoric eerily echoes that of a strongman, denouncing corruption and the incompetence of civic institutions, whilst taking little meaningful action to rectify the situation.
As Kabendera himself wrote in The Economist, “Mr Magafuli wasted no time in cracking down on corruption (at least amongst his enemies). But since then the only thing being squashed in Tanzania are civil liberties”.
He is known for a worrying tendency not to think things through, often firing officials on the spot, rather than subjecting them to due process. But perhaps more importantly, the president has shown little interest in broad economic reform, shunning the World Bank’s attempts to spur growth.
He continues to live up to his “bulldozer” moniker, giving one foreign investor just a week to cough up a US$5m tax bill. His reticence to outside investment is telling, and as such Tanzania sits an unhealthy 141 out of 190 on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, behind Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Iran.
The boss of a private equity firm with interests across Africa tells how “The country has become totally uninvestable. You pay your taxes for five years and have the returns to prove it and then some guy arrives with his own calculation and says you haven’t paid your tax”.
What these cases demonstrate, is that Magufuli and his regime are thugs. They bully any who dare to questions the president’s omnipotence. Just ask the people of Zanzibar.