Tanzania president must champion democracy or risk radicalization
© Getty Images

Independence Day for the East African country of Tanzania is Dec. 9, but is now also the anniversary of one of the quirkier moments in the country's political history.

On that day just over a year ago, recently elected Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli surprised his people by clearing street rubbish near the presidential palace, at times with his hands. Magufuli had canceled the normal Independence Day celebrations because of their expense, and instead decreed a national clean-up day.

Magufuli's common-man touch is popular with many Tanzanians, but there has been a problematic side to his presidency.

Despite his party dominating Tanzanian politics since independence, the country's democracy is still one of Africa's most stable. Some of Magufuli's policies are now endangering that record, however, and the backsliding comes at a particularly inopportune moment. Islamist radicalization is rising in the country, and Magufuli's overbearing style risks aggravating the trend.

That could mean further trouble for Tanzania and the important but fragile East African region in which it sits.

Magufuli's campaign slogan — Hapa Kazi Tu! ("Only work here!" in Swahili) — and his nickname Tingatinga (bulldozer), are good reflections of his approach to governance. He has made rooting out Tanzania's notorious corruption and bringing economic development to his impoverished country the centerpieces of his administration, with some effect. In his first year he made a number of cost-cutting measures, abruptly sacked corrupt officials, and removed 10,000 "ghost workers" from the civil service rolls.

However, he has also resorted to worrisome means to shore up political power.

ADVERTISEMENT

During the election that brought him to office, electoral officials annulled the local results in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago, when it appeared the opposition was going to claim the island's presidency from Magufuli's party. The annulment came despite international election monitors reporting nothing amiss.

 

New elections were held in March 2016, anyway. The opposition boycotted, and the incumbent president of Zanzibar breezed to victory.

The Zanzibar peccadillo was a harbinger of things to come. In June 2016, Magufuli banned all public meetings of political parties until the next round of elections in 2020, claiming that opposition politicking was the work of foreign imperialists.

Magufuli blocked television coverage of parliamentary sessions, and in September, five people were charged with insulting the president on social media under a new "cybercrimes" law.

This past August, the security services detained opposition leaders, and paramilitary police publicly drilled in opposition neighborhoods to discourage a planned "Day of Defiance" protest.

The intimidation had its intended effect, as the opposition ultimately canceled the protests.

Magufuli's roughshod treatment of the political opposition is all the more alarming given the increasing radicalization within Tanzania's Muslim community, which is about 35 to 40 percent of the country's population.

Tanzanian Muslims by and large practice tolerant strains of Islam. However, a proliferation of Arab-financed nongovernmental organizations promoting fundamentalism, resentment over the squelching of Zanzibar's decades-long efforts for further autonomy and the potent regional influence of the Somalia-based al-Shabaab terrorist group have given rise to an extremist fringe in Tanzania.

Dozens of Tanzanians have travelled abroad to join al-Shabaab, and before that, al Qaeda (a Zanzibari was involved in the bombing of the USS Cole naval vessel in Yemen in 2000). Domestically, Tanzania has suffered increasingly frequent terrorist attacks since 2012, including against churches and bars.

Police have also discovered militant training camps inside the country, while terrorists in Zanzibar — which is 97 percent Muslim — have attacked tourists and priests with acid and bombed mosques, churches and tourist restaurants.

Magufuli's policies risk exacerbating this already alarming trend. Radicalization is a complicated and imperfectly understood phenomenon, but a sense of alienation is a risk factor. The shutting down of legitimate political expression, heavyhanded policing and other dynamics such as high youth unemployment (estimated at 85 percent in Zanzibar) are likely enhancing the appeal of radical messages inside Tanzania.

Furthermore, the Tanzanian government's squeezing of the political space is forcing out moderate opposition parties, leaving the field to more hardline groups. The opposition standard-bearer in Zanzibar, the Civic United Front party, is moderate, yet they "are no longer able to engage in politics," said a law professor at the University of Dar es Salaam, who asked to remain anonymous. "So Zanzibaris don't hear that positive perspective."

Instead, Uamsho, the Islamist secessionist movement that authorities blame for most of Zanzibar's terrorism, is likely to gain a larger audience. "If Uamsho disturbances increase, the security forces should be able to deal with them," Nicodemeus Minde, a Tanzanian political scientist at the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo, told one of the authors. "But continued disenfranchisement of Zanzibaris could definitely awaken the group."

Tanzania's struggles matter to the United States. Promoting and protecting democracy has long been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Increased radicalization in Tanzania will lead to more of its citizens joining al-Shabaab, a group the U.S. has fought for a decade. Tanzania's economy is also growing rapidly, and has much untapped potential. Investment-spooking instability of the kind some of Magufuli's policies are courting imperils much of that.

Magufuli should be praised for some of his anti-corruption reforms. Yet, his at times vindictive and highhanded method of governing is damaging Tanzania's still young and fragile democracy. Additional undemocratic measures also risk accelerating the pace of radicalization already rising in the country.

Yet there is still an opportunity for President Magufuli to reverse course and champion democracy in Tanzania. Doing so would benefit Tanzania's citizens, the region — and beyond.

Joshua Meservey is the policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation. He lived in Africa as an aid worker for five years, including in East Africa from 2009 to 2011. Follow him on Twitter @JMeservey. James Barnett is currently a Boren Scholar in Tanzania, having previously researched at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @jbar1648.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.