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Tanzania's 'bulldozer' president and the opposition

Jan Philipp Wilhelm / mc September 1, 2016

John Magufuli has been harassing the opposition and closing down newspapers and radio stations. Unsurprisingly this style of leadership has drawn criticism, but that is only half the story.

Tansania Präsident John Magufuli
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

Not so long ago, John Pombe Magufuli, was basking in praise. Since his election in November, he has been cracking down on corruption and official waste. Air travel for government officials has been scrapped. He even abolished the Independence Day celebrations. His name became synonymous with cost-cutting measures. #WhatWouldMugufuliDo contained all manner of hints on how to scrimp and save.

But the president himself - known as "Bulldozer" since his days in office as a dynamic minister of works - is increasingly attracting attention by adopting undemocratic, authoritarian measures. Political rallies have been banned. Newspapers and radio stations critical of the government have been closed down. Live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings have been halted, allegedly because of the need to economize.

Tanzania expert Ben Taylor sees no inconsistencies here and says Magufuli is merely sticking to his agenda. "I think the president has a genuine commitment to try to clamp down on corruption, tax evasion, inefficiency and waste within government," Taylor told DW.

Tansania Wahlen CCM John Magufuli Anhänger
John Magufuli was elected president on 25.10.2015Image: Reuters/S. Said

Magufuli and his supporters are convinced that the whole country must unite behind him. "Inconvenient issues like freedom of speech, public debate are seen as distracting people from the focus of government and the population as a whole," Taylor added.

'We are here to work'

It is a policy that has the approval of many Tanzanians. Many are more interested in results rather than in the methods that Magufuli employs to achieve them, said Richard Shaba from Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Dar es Salam.

However, Magufuli's tendency of making statements in public without explaining them properly can cause problems. "Even the famous one 'Hapa kazi tu' (We are here to work) is not elaborated [upon], people are left to [find] their definitions which is not good," Shaba said.

Last week, Magufuli's clampdown took its most draconian turn so far. Six politicians from the opposition Chadema party were temporarily arrested. In spite of a police ban on political party meetings, Chadema had intended to stage protests against the government on Thursday (01.09.2016). However, the protests were postponed for one month at the last moment.

Tansania Präsident John Magufuli
The president who helps to pick up the rubbish. Many Tanzanians approve of such stuntsImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hayduk

Magufuli still popular

Chadmea said it wants to await the outcome of mediation efforts by religious leaders in order to avoid violent confrontation. Ben Taylor suspects that the opposition simply lacks sufficient support for protests among the population. "There is no doubt that Magufuli remains extremely popular within Tanzania," he said. There is growing criticism of him, but that hasn't dented his popularity.

Opinion about Magufuli is divided, Shaba said. "The donor community started off by saying 'we have the man we were looking for' but today they're divided, they're not sure, and some are reserved. You have the political parties in general; they don't feel they are getting a fair deal. You have the man on the street, who feels that for the first time that the big and the mighty are forced to obey the law, or at least calm down, or are forced to listen."