On 28 October, Tanzania goes to the polls. The election will see the Tanzanian people choose a new president, members of parliaments for the mainland as well as Zanzibar and local councillors.
If the elections are free and fair, there is no reason to believe that the incumbent president John Magufuli will not be returned to power. He has a commanding lead in the opinion polls – independent surveys say that 80 per cent of people on the mainland and 71 per cent in Zanzibar are going to vote for him.
Magufuli came to power in 2015, promising to reduce government corruption and spending. He also vowed to increase investment in the country’s industries. He represents the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party that has been in power ever since 1961 when the country gained independence from Britain.
Since his election, Magufuli has been seen to be tough on corruption, particularly related to the mining sector which generates significant incomes for the country.
In 2017, Magufuli presented London-based Acacia with a US$190 billion bill for back tax related to metallic ores exported from the country. The company denied any wrongdoing but its Canadian parent opted to pay the country US$300 million to settle the claims and agreed to share the economic benefits more equitably.
There is also a feeling that Magufuli has handled the Covid pandemic well, although many believe that the country’s statistics do not tell the real story.
At a church service in June, Magufuli claimed that coronavirus had been “removed by the powers of God”.
The number of cases in the country has been stuck at 509 for weeks though that has more to do with the country not releasing official statistics rather than the virus being defeated. Opposition figures claim the true figure is in the tens of thousands and that hundreds have died.
The president clearly has no confidence in the country’s testing regime. Earlier this year he suspended the head of the country’s national health laboratory in charge of coronavirus testing after it was claimed that secret tests carried out on animals, fruits and vehicle oil at the laboratory had tested positive for Covid.
“People genuinely believe he has handled Covid well,” said one person who has had close political and business links with Tanzania for more than 30 years, speaking on condition of anonymity. “His view has been that people in Tanzania would suffer much more from having a lockdown rather than having a few cases and people been getting on with life as normal.”
Part of this may be due to the fact that Tanzania is relatively young – just 3.8 per cent of the country’s 60 million population are aged 65 or over and more likely to die from the disease.
“When infections were higher back in May, people did a lot of traditional remedies, and there was a lot of reliance on local knowledge then, and prayer, and then when things got better people relaxed a bit more,” says Tanzanian poet and writer Neema Komba.
The presence of mass crowds at political gatherings, usually without masks, is perhaps a sign that Covid is no longer considered a serious risk in the country, whatever the truth is about a virus that has killed more than a million people worldwide.
She says that Tanzanians are very aware of individual responsibility.
“There is a saying in Swahili that really reflects the attitude – ‘za kuambiwa changanya na za kwako’ – which means something like what you are told you should analyse on your own”.
Tanzania’s economy is not doing too badly either.
In the 1980s, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. In the middle of that decade, the country embarked on a liberalisation programme under President Ali Hassan Mwinyi which removed price controls, reduced the budget deficit and restructured many of the country’s state-owned enterprises. It has now jumped above many of its fellow African nations in terms of GDP, averaging growth of more than six per cent every year since 2000. This year, growth may fall to between 1.9 and 4 per cent.
The influential businessman with political connections who spoke to Index said, “Magufuli will win this easily. He has a lot of support from people who are fed up with inequalities and fed up with greed that some politicians have shown in the past. The Tanzanian people believe he is generally on their side and that those who are barred form standing have probably got it coming to them.”
Yet the key question is still, will the elections be free and fair?
Magufuli himself vowed in January that the elections would be free and fair but opposition politicians are not convinced. The main opposition party Chadema (Party for Democracy and Progress) has had hundreds of its candidates for parliament and councils disqualified.
Chadema presidential candidate Tundu Lissu was prevented from campaigning for seven days in early October by the NEC for allegedly contravening election rules while Zanzibar’s commission suspended campaigning by ACT Wazalendo candidate Maalim Seif.
Both have been accused of using ‘seditious’ or ‘inciting’ language and some feel that it is only opposition candidates that are picked up on this.
NEC director Dr Wilson Mahera told Tanzania’s Daily News that candidates needed to follow the regulations.
“A leader who continues causing public fears, uttering seditious words may find himself/herself out of the list of candidates before polling date,” said Dr Mahera.
There is a changing mood in the country relating to the media.
The country has typically done well on RSF’s World Press Freedom Index compared to many of its near neighbours. The media has generally been free in the country, particularly under Benjamin Mkapa who ruled the country from 1995 to 2005. Mkapa worked as managing editor of a number of newspapers in the country in the mid-60s to early 70s before starting his political career as press secretary under Julius Nyerere, who took Tanzania to independence.
However, this year the government has tightened up laws which bars Tanzanian broadcasters from airing national or international content on their platforms without prior permission from the government
In July, the government began a crackdown on the use of social media. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations 2020 bans “news, statements or rumours for the purpose of ridicule, abuse or harming the reputation, prestige or status of the United Republic, the flag of the United Republic, the national anthem or the United Republic’s symbol, national anthem or its logos”.
“Social media is an interesting space,” says Komba. “I would say there are various Tanzanias on social media but then perhaps it is about the algorithms that show you what you want to see. From my observations, if you are on Twitter, you will get more political discussions, while Facebook and Instagram are completely different and then you have spaces like Jamii forums where people voice their opinions more boldly and WhatsApp where people have more private discussions.”
She added, “The cybercrime act has made it quite challenging for people to freely express themselves. So, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, what aren’t people saying?”
Magufuli has been tough on corruption in the mining sector which has given him popular appeal.
Despite this crackdown, Komba says there seem to be positive steps to make the elections freer than in the past.
“Tanzania has invited international observers and we hope that these observers will give us the answers about the fairness and freeness of the elections, but unfortunately, we only get this information after elections are done. The National Electoral Commission has also allowed the use of alternate IDs in case of voter ID loss, which is also something positive. And, there is still voter education given by various stakeholders.”
Our interviewee said, “Magufuli could easily be re-elected in an completely open and transparent way but people in the CCM are paranoid about the opposition. The concept of a loyal opposition is not one that is deeply embedded.”
If Magufuli wins re-election for a second term – as all of his predecessors since independence have done – then the question is what next? Will he attempt to change the constitution so that he could remain in power as others have done elsewhere in the world?
He added: “I am pretty sure that even if he wanted to, there are enough ambitious and powerful people in the CCM who want their turn at the presidency.”