Given the imperial like constitutional powers endowed to the President of Tanzania, it is easy to assume that one person – the President – can run the country as he/she wishes. This assumption made a lot of sense in the last five years of John Pombe Magufuli’s administration when his statements – regardless of the constitutions, laws and norms – were implemented. For example, he banned political rallies, which are provided for by the constitution. Similarly, he banned pregnant girls from going back to school, a controversial measure that was also enforced. President Magufuli also declared Tanzania COVID 19 free and, rather than pushing back, the Ministry of Health stopped releasing the data and promoted traditional herbs for prevention and curing “pneumonia”. His statement, rather than health protocols were adhered to even when the pandemic was killing people
Upon Magufuli’s sudden death in March 2021, his Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was immediately sworn in as president as per the constitution. She started her tenure with lofty words and promises of reforms. Likewise, her first few months in office were characterised by democratic rhetoric including promises to meet opposition leaders, to heal the nation, and a warning to the police to stop harassing people with trumped up charges. There were also pledges to create a good business environment with less abuse from the police and tax authorities. So how does President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s record look now she is more than 100 days into her time in office?
The honeymoon …
To her credit, the government quickly changed its stance on COVID 19 and embraced scientific measures – though it is yet to publicly release COVID-19 data. Within her first 100 days in office, President Samia Suluhu Hassan also released sheikhs who had been detained for over a decade. And for the first time in 5 years, the main opposition party – Party for Democracy and Progress (CHADEMA) – could carry out internal party meetings in different parts of the country without police interference.
A breath of fresh air seemed to be blowing throughout the country.
… is over
But this was not to last. On July 23rd, Freeman Mbowe, the leader of the main opposition party was charged with terrorism after being arrested at 2:00am in his hotel room. The charges are deeply problematicfor a number of reasons. First, they are non-bailable and clearly designed to harass and intimidate opposition leaders and supporters – Mbowe was detained for 6 days before he was even charged. Second, there is no evidence that opposition leaders are engaged in any kind of terrorist activities.
In reality, the hardline response of the government was actually motivated by the fact that Mbowe and CHADEMA had begun to gain momentum by reviving the issue of constitutional reforms. Although successive governments have paid lip service to the need to update the constitution, this is an issue that the ruling party would prefer to forget. Despite the return to multi-party politics, Tanzania continues to be governed by what is effectively a single party constitution. CCM survival is a function of the existing constitution, which confers great advantages on the government.
This helps to explain why CCM responds harshly whenever the issue of constitutional reform is raised, and why President Samia Suluhu Hassan described opposition demands for change as “chokochoko” – that is they represent an affray – and that she would instead focus on the economy. Understood against this background, it becomes clear that Mbowe’s real crime was not terrorism, but rather organizing a party member meeting on how CHADEMA could push for a meaningful process of constitutional review.
Worse was to come.
Following the of Mbowe, party members and leaders attempted to protest. A group of CHADEMA’s women wing carried out a demonstration in front of the USA Embassy on Wednesday, but this was disrupted by the arrest of some branch leaders at night. Despite having done nothing more than exercise their democratic rights, they remain detained. Others who demonstrated in another part of the country – such as Tarime Musoma – have also been arrested and detained.
It is therefore now clear that despite her initial promises, President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s regime is based on the same authoritarian foundations as her predecessor.
The more things change the more they stay the same
So why did President Samia Suluhu Hassan change course?
Some initially argued that the strong powers of the president would enable her to overcome the more authoritarian elements of the party and plot a slow but steady course towards democratization. In his autobiography, for example, former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi narrates how, after taking over the administration from his predecessor, Julius Nyerere, he implemented his own vision and introduced massive reforms. He used the phrase “kila zama na kitabu chake”, meaning “every regime with its own book”.
But the strong continuity in authoritarian strategies used from one president to another suggests another story, namely that sooner or later the executive comes under pressure and responds with repression. Recent academic research has shown, for example, that the durability of CCM rule is rooted it its control of an overbearing state, and the authoritarian abuses that this facilitates.
CCM, which has been in power since before independence, has institutionalized a dominant-party state through a combination of coercion, censorship and clientelism. President Samia Suluhu Hassan inherited this political system and the advantages it confers on political leaders, but she is also beholden to it. Following the initial honeymoon phase, CCM has reverted to type.
The one question that remains is why this has happened so soon. CCM “won” a landslide victory in the recent elections and so there is no imminent threat to its hegemony. Perhaps the most persuasive answer put forward so far is that due to her relatively weak position – as a woman in a patriarchal political class who hails from Zanzibar and lacks a strong political base in the party – President Samia Suluhu Hassan has struggled to assert her authority. As a result, she has had little option but to side with the Magufuli loyalists, who remain in place in both the government and the civil service. Elected in a flawed election, these individuals have a personal interest in CCM maintaining Magufuli’s hardline approach, because without it many would not be in power.
If this interpretation is correct, there is little hope for meaningful political reform during President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s time in power. Operating with a large legitimacy overdraft, she will be forced to use increasing levels of repression to survive. This is not only bad news for Tanzanian democracy, but also for the country’s economic development. A president who cannot control the self-interested inclinations of party members will also fail to fight corruption, waste and inefficiency.
Dr. Aikande Kwayu is a social scientist in Tanzania and an honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison.