News | Participation / Civil Rights - East Africa The Limits of Tanzania’s Democratization

Observations from an outsider’s perspective



Dorothee Braun,

Tanzanian President John Magufuli speaks at a Chama Cha Mapinduzi campaign rally in Dodoma, capital of Tanzania, on 29 August 2020. picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency | CCM

Campaigning for Tanzania’s upcoming elections kicked off on 26 August. For the following two months, 15 parties and their presidential candidates are permitted to hold political rallies across the country until, on 28 October, the electorate will be called on to vote for the president, parliament, and political leadership at the ward level. Varying greatly in their economic, organizational, and ideological capacities to reach out to audiences, the incumbent regime headed by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (“Party of the Revolution”, or CCM) and the main opposition party Chama Cha Demokrasia Na Maendeleo (“Party for Democracy and Progress”, or CHADEMA) dominate the election contest on the Tanzanian mainland.

Dorothee Braun is Head of Office at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s East Africa Office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Both presidential candidates have been the subject of international media attention. Dr. John Pombe Joseph Magufuli of CCM, elected president in 2015, was initially applauded for his firm stance against corruption but soon came to be labelled “Tanzania’s Bulldozer” due to his increasingly authoritarian leadership, arbitrariness, and human rights violations. Tundu Anthipas Lissu, the presidential candidate of CHADEMA, is an eloquent and skilled lawyer who has repeatedly accused the government of breaking constitutional, domestic, and international law and is seen as someone who, if elected, could bring about necessary democratic and economic changes.

Yet as argued in the following, international reporting on Tanzanian politics—and on the current president in particular—fails to contextualize political decision-making against the backdrop of socio-historical as well as institutional developments, international interference, and global relations. This is reflected in the way international media reduces multi-party democracy in Tanzania to a purely political project.

The Path to the 2020 General Elections

While the role and importance of political parties in Tanzania has been the subject of controversial debates since independence, the dominant understanding, particularly in the West, regards contesting elections and winning political office in a multi-party system as one of the most direct and legitimate links between the state and society. The hope and expectation underlying this understanding is that by overturning the incumbent regime, positive developments will arrive almost inevitably.

Such hope combined with a readiness to fight for change was at its height in 2015, when masses of young people in particular rallied behind CHADEMA and its presidential candidate Edward Ngoyai Lowassa, who had just defected from CMM. His move deprived the party of their highly capable strategist Dr. Wilbrod Peter Slaa, who himself defected from the ruling party in 1995. In the wake of the country’s first general election following Tanzania’s transformation towards a multi-party system of governance in 1992, Dr. Slaa took on the position of CHADEMA’s Secretary General. Developing a strategy known as “Movement for Change”, the party engaged with the public across the country, calling for developing a new constitution, accountable government, long-term strategic plans, and economic growth as a policy priority.

Dr. Slaa resigned from his position and left CHADEMA after the party decided to contest the 2015 election with Edward Lowassa as presidential candidate despite his implication in economic corruption scandals. That election saw the CCM take significant losses for the first time. However, when the time came to defend the popular will amid accusations that the ruling party had rigged the election results, the opposition spearheaded by CHADEMA failed to rise to the occasion. Building effective strategies and inciting the spirit of a movement were subordinated to the priorities of party personalization, questionable party affiliation, and undemocratic internal decision-making.

Five years later voters face a public spectacle dominated by the ruling party, including live broadcasts of their campaigns in which both Christian and Islamic religious leaders and artists participate, while the public space for opposition parties remains limited to public rallies, a slow opening of television broadcasting, and social media. Yet there are some signs of political relaxation. The national television station TBC1 devotes live coverage to rallies from all parties. Election manifestos, launched either through press conferences, party conventions, or mass rallies, are now online and have been circulating on social media, particularly WhatsApp. Candidates’ speeches tend to target the main opponent or, as is the case with the ruling party, emphasize successes of the last five years to counter arguments from opposition candidate Tundu Lissu.

Speeches are largely confined to the domain of personalities, with debates on ideological differences conspicuously absent. It would appear that what Samuel Mushi of the University of Dar es Salaam observed back in 1998, namely that the “imbalance between personalities and party programmes in opposition parties, whose leaders are said to be larger than the parties, is a major stumbling block for the maturity and institutionalization of the parties”, remains relevant even 20 years later.

Ten days into the campaign, this year’s election is framed as a contest between Magufuli and Lissu. Magufuli stands for developing public infrastructure and a drive towards national sovereignty, while Lissu promises democracy and banks on public grievances caused by the incumbent regime. Yet as Tanzanian columnist M.M. Mwanakijiji remarked in the pages of Raia Mwema, “what can be said about Lissu and his colleagues is that democracy has already been tested. For almost 20 years Tanzanians (under the leadership of President Mkapa and Kikwete) have seen democracy at work, however without development.” Moreover, Tundu Lissu’s return to Tanzania after surviving an assassination attempt attracts spectators who wish to witness the miracle, but also triggers a degree of scepticism. Mwanakijiji continues: “Lissu is suspected to be the puppet of ‘imperialist’ interests and acts in collusion by disclosing sensitive information that includes even the confiscation of Tanzanian airplanes abroad.”

Multi-Party Politics: Striving for Democratization or New Alliances for European Domination?

The Western gaze tends to reduce multi-party democracy to a political project, ignoring its contradictions as well as its underbelly, the economic project. Re-introduced to African countries in the 1990s as a conditionality of aid under Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) following the collapse of the Soviet Union, improved governance, human rights, and the opening of civil society became the new political baggage attached to economic aid. “Donors” (and finance capital) claimed the new arrangement would bolster the accountability of the state and ensure that the repressed productivity of the people and misappropriated aid would be set free for the sake of development. Many critical observers in the Global South, however, saw the ideology of pluralism, democracy, and free markets as maintaining hegemony over countries in ways that were economically and politically useful to Western powers.

In Tanzania, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party evolved into a state bureaucracy over the course of 30 years, while ties to its traditional social bases—particularly peasants and workers—frayed. It thus readily embraced the new doctrine of free markets, open trade, and private property as an opportunity to forge new alliances. As political scientist Rwekaza S. Mukandala put it at the time, the “state bourgeoisie has been willing to share the stage and be seen with the private bourgeoisie. The private bourgeoisie has been recruited to help run the huge state enterprise sector, especially as chairmen or ordinary members of the Board of Directors. Private capitalists have finally allowed to form their national chamber of agriculture, commerce and industry, in a newly accorded significant recognition.” Peasants, small-scale traders, informal workers, miners, and women in particular—the vast majority of the population—have been excluded if not further exploited, with their human and social rights and indeed very existence undermined as a result.

The inherent contradiction between an economic programme with its attendant adverse effects on vulnerable groups and a narrow understanding of pluralism that negates its social and ideological dimensions underlines the complete neglect of the class context upon which the SAPs have been imposed. Neither freedom and liberation from autocratic rule nor democracy and accountability can be decreed from above—they must have a social basis from which they arise, are nurtured, and sustained. Democratization as imposed by the SAPs has been an elitist project from the outset, that to a large extent entails nurturing elitist civil-society organizations on the one hand while draining intellectual capacities from public education and research on the other. Indeed, the elite nature of the opposition movement in Tanzania is reflected in the social composition of the founders and leaders of these parties, their mediocre active membership base, and their heavy dependency on donor or (inter)national private sector funding.

With the sole exception of CCM, which still disposes of vertical structures from the top to the grassroots level, political parties in Tanzania have almost no popular base. As early as 1989, the country’s founding father Julius Nyerere launched a veiled critique of the Mozambican “model” in his address to the Fifth Congress of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). Documented in the recent three-part biography, Development as Rebellion, he probably also had his own party in mind when he stated: “The Party—all of our Parties—have to be in the villages all the time. And they have to be working with the people all the time. We must be part of them. A meal cooked without salt has no flavour. Bread cooked without yeast does not rise. But if you get a lump of salt or a lump of yeast in your mouth you spit it out. Our parties must be like active salt or yeast—merged in the people, and changing them into something more than they were because it is at work among them.”

Progressive Pathways: Economic Imbalances under Attack?

International media coverage either depicting the president as a dictator or ridiculing him shows the extent to which human rights and good governance discourse is the only lens through which Tanzania is analysed—disregarding the historical development of its nation-state as well as its position in global relations and geopolitical power struggles. In the past five years the incumbent regime has launched noteworthy attacks on existing asymmetric economic relations, including foreign investment, trade relations, energy provisioning by multinational companies, privatization of land and seeds, and reform of the mining sector to reduce large capital and resource outflow of the country’s abundant mineral wealth. Its fight has been against the flow of international finance capital, international research, consumer goods, and media information within its own government as well as against powerful international interests. The so-called “Green Revolution” in the agricultural sector constitutes one such an example; the EAC-EU Economic Partnership Agreement is another. What the CCM government for its part has failed to do, however, is mobilize sufficient support among its social base to fight for national sovereignty—in turn a consequence of its autocratic and arbitrary measures, which are well-reviewed and at times even exaggerated in the international press.

CHADEMA, on the other hand, seems to have fully internalized the private sector and finance capital-led development prescriptions of the West in both the private as well as public sector, including health, water, and even education. Regrettably, the potential consequences as well as dangers of these prescriptions are not discussed. It could be argued that the space for building a social base by introducing “neighbourhood discussion forums” at all levels of society (as in South Sudan) narrowed in the last five years, as the government banned public rallies and attacked CHADEMA and its members in various ways. That said, the party failed to re-read the writing on the wall as a blessing in disguise and change tactics in response, such as by investing in grassroots mobilization. Looking back on the first ten days of election campaigning, even now there is little evidence that this space is being used to engage the electorate in a debate over how to influence the direction of government policies as encouraged by the West.

Once again, the class context of the democratization project has gone overlooked. The struggle for leadership of the Tanzanian elite in the 2020 election can be summarized by two dominant features: personalized party power and vote-catching, often overstepping parties’ election programmes when the gulf between party and the working poor grows unbridgeable. It goes without saying that none of these features serve the Tanzanian people’s longing for democracy and change.

It therefore appears likely that history will repeat itself again. For, as John-Jean Barya wrote back in 1993, the struggle of middle class leaders “which has been mainly for leadership, rather than for strengthening of the organization and formation of programmes does not indicate a group of people intent on democratizing a hitherto undemocratic polity. A combination of an undemocratic international system with an opportunistic new breed of leadership should not deceive anyone into believing that this amounts to a move towards democracy. So long as the majority of the people are not involved and in control of the definition of the political issues, the political programmes and the political process likely to take place represents more a changing of the guard.”