Unfinished Business for Tanzania’s New President

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john magufuli tanzania

John Magufuli’s first 100 days in office featured symbolic measures to fight graft, but several other pressing problems have yet to be tackled.

President John Magufuli’s initial steps to address government waste and corruption after taking office last November sparked an online hashtag and leadership envy among the youth of East Africa. However, continued restrictions on the media—and more importantly the mishandling of the Zanzibar elections—demonstrate that serious changes must be made before his administration can truly be praised for reform.

Competitive elections

Tanzania’s October 29 elections were the first since the country’s independence in which the opposition, through a coalition called Ukawa, presented a serious challenge to Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the ruling party.

The preelection period was tense, with the government taking restrictive measures to bolster its power, including two new laws—the Statistics Act and the Cybercrime Act—that could be used to control critical information. Meanwhile, the opposition seized on CCM’s corruption scandals and promised a new way of governing, though the coalition’s presidential candidate was a former CCM prime minister. CCM ultimately retained its large legislative majority and secured the presidency for Magufuli, previously a little-known technocrat who held a series of minor cabinet posts.

A hashtag sensation

Immediately after taking office, Magufuli made several symbolic changes that sparked the hashtag #whatwouldamagufulido and won praise from Tanzanians and others across East Africa. Among other moves, the new president canceled lavish Independence Day celebrations, limited foreign travel by government officials, removed “sitting allowances” for government employees, and eliminated government Christmas cards.

While none of these reforms will end corruption or inefficiency on their own, they represented the first signs of a shift in official culture, which is important given that unchecked graft has cost Tanzania international assistance in recent years. Shortly after many of the changes were announced, a group of civil servants were arrested and temporarily detained by a superior for turning up late to work, indicating that the president’s approach was having an impact at the lowest levels of government.

Media restrictions, stalled constitution

Despite these initial achievements, upon closer examination, the negative aspects of Magufuli’s performance to date outweigh the positive. For example, although he allowed the registration of the East African, a regional newspaper that had been banned in early 2015 on the grounds that it was unregistered after decades in circulation, media freedoms in general remain under threat.

Magufuli has made no signals that he will revise the Statistics Act or the Cybercrime Act, and arrests under the laws during the election period suggest that they will be used to stifle dissent moving forward. Last month, the government invoked the 1976 Newspaper Act to permanently ban the tabloid Mawio for its “inflammatory” reporting. Two troubling pieces of draft legislation, the Access to Information Act and the Media Services Act, remain on hold in the parliament, and the government could put them forward for renewed consideration at any time.

Meanwhile, a referendum on CCM-backed constitutional reforms, which many hoped would be held before the 2015 elections, is still in limbo. Nearly a year has passed since the April referendum date came and went, and no new timetable has been proposed. As a result, it is unclear when citizens will have an opportunity to weigh in on the controversial new charter.

The Zanzibar elections

Perhaps the biggest stain on Magufuli’s first 100 days is the ongoing dispute over the October election results in the semiautonomous island region of Zanzibar.

Zanzibar has always been a political battleground. The opposition seemed more popular than ever in 2015, and it was widely expected to win in the region. Yet as counting was under way, the Zanzibar Electoral Commission declared the results null and void, citing widespread fraud. The opposition declared victory, rejecting the annulment. Critics of the commission’s order noted that the national election body considered Zanzibar’s vote to be valid for the presidential contest.

Discussions on a way forward were at a stalemate until January 23, when the government declared that there would be a fresh election on March 20, with no campaign period in advance. The opposition announced a boycott, ratcheting up tensions and the threat of violence. Many independent Tanzania watchers expressed concern that any resolution other than finishing the original count, while ensuring a chain of custody, would simply open the door to further tampering to guarantee a CCM victory. While the outcome remains to be seen, very few observers expect the March rerun to resolve the conflict or reflect the will of the Zanzibari people. Unless the government takes steps to mitigate these doubts, the dispute could weigh heavily on Magufuli for some time to come.


So far Tanzanians and other East Africans have been moved by Magufuli’s fresh approach to governing and are optimistic about the future of the country. While his initial attempts to address corruption are encouraging, government policies on other issues—particularly the media and Zanzibar’s future—lack a similar spirit of reform.

In order to make a genuinely positive impact with his presidency, Magufuli must stop the implementation of restrictive media laws and provide a new and transparent plan for a referendum on constitutional changes that reflect the will of the people. Most importantly, however, he must work with Zanzibaris and the international community to find a fair and peaceful resolution to the region’s electoral crisis. Unless these steps are taken, democracy in Tanzania will continue to be found wanting. 

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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