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When Samia Suluhu Hassan, the first female president of Tanzania, took office in March following the sudden death of the incumbent, John Pombe Magufuli, a sense of contagious optimism gripped the nation. Viewed by many as “calm, gentle and attentive”, she appeared to embody the possibility of a new beginning after five years of her predecessor’s autocratic and ruthless reign. However, the July arrest and detention of a leading opposition figure, Freeman Mbowe, on what many activists reject as spurious terrorism charges, has shown that the new president has not been able to devise a different way of dealing with the  political constraints that besieged her predecessor, and that she is, ironically (given her supposed demeanour), incapable of tolerating political skirmish.

The indefinite detention (terrorism charges aren’t bailable in Tanzania) of Mr Mbowe, a principled and unswerving chairperson of the Party of Democracy and Development (CHADEMA), coincided with growing agitation for a new constitution and an independent electoral commission. For the opposition, especially CHADEMA, and everyone else that believes the last five years (2015–2020) were a dark chapter in the country’s history of progressive governance, the death of President Magufuli needs to be seen as a historic window of opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime trigger for enacting fundamental legal and governance reforms, with the intention of preventing a recurrence of the excesses witnessed under the previous regime.

In contrast, the dominant coalition within the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), a majority of its rural-based support, a section of urban vendors, and a notable number of disparate leftists in the country regard the late president as a committed patriot and a fearless transformative ruler, though admittedly not a saint. This sharp schism between the opposition and the ruling party surfaced three months after President Samia was sworn in, when she acknowledged the need for a new constitution, and the restoration of political freedoms, but argued that these weren’t immediate problems facing the nation. She instead asked for time to stabilize the (ailing) economy.

The president’s views appear to have evolved in the intervening period, between when she took office in March, and when she revealed her position regarding the new constitution in June. In her first speech to the National Assembly, President Samia made a case for continuity – particularly in the form of working to complete her predecessor’s strategic infrastructural investments – but also used the occasion to announce plans for a potential dialogue with political parties, to “collectively agree on the direction and mechanism for conducting politics, for the benefit of the country.”

The terrorism charges against Freeman Mbowe and his three guards have been preferred at a time when the transitional government is grappling with growing pressure from multiple sources; demand for constitutional change from the opposition, public complaints over the July budgetary changes that have affected the price of fuel and doubled mobile phone transaction fees, and a vaccination campaign marred by intra-party resistance and mass public scepticism. The initially impressive approval rating of the new government is under serious threat, and the administration is struggling to turn the tide. While public outcry has compelled the government to reconsider its levy on mobile phone transactions, no solution has been unveiled to date. Moreover, no concession has been offered to those demanding broad governance sector reforms.

A key lingering question is, why has the sixth phase government, initially seen as reform-oriented, reneged on its early intention to pursue a restorative and inclusive political process? The answer lies in the nature of the political constraints facing the regime.

Political constraints

The death of President Magufuli, and the optimism associated with the new administration had the effect of emboldening the opposition, after a harrowing general election in October 2020. Opposition parties, especially CHADEMA, took advantage of the uncertainty associated with power transition to reach out to its members and re-organize. The Police Force, often a nemesis of the opposition, was not sure of what to do (until later when the president re-affirmed a ban on political rallies). The immediate mobilization that followed the unintended easing of restrictions showed that the opposition had not been “finished”, even after years of relentless pressure from the government and its organs. Keen political observers, and players within the ruling party raised the alarm that the new administration needed to be careful, or else it would suffer the consequences in the upcoming elections scheduled for 2025.

A strengthened opposition would be detrimental to President Samia’s distant but inevitable bid for re-election in 2025. Her ascent to the top office earlier in the year was accidental. She must, therefore, be naturally determined to prove herself at the ballot box, and cement her legitimacy and her legacy as the country’s (truly) first female president.

The death of President Magufuli, and the optimism associated with the new administration had the effect of emboldening the opposition.

The demand for a new constitution is a stubborn riddle for President Samia, for two main reasons. Firstly, her previous role as the deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly, in a process that was aborted, makes her indebted to the issue. Secondly, apart from the new constitution, there is no other political issue that carries the same huge potential for cementing her legacy. Imagine her name going down in history as not only the first female president, but also one that delivered a transformative constitution! In spite of this strategic and historic value, it is nearly impossible for the regime to preside over a successful process that would not, at the same time, deliver fundamental concessions for the opposition. As such, it is quite likely that the President will defer the issue, and pursue it in her second term (post-2025).

The tricky nature of the question of the new constitution partly explains why the president has not yet met the opposition, four months into her mandate, in spite of an earlier commitment to do so. It is clear that the administration has been dithering, due to the difficulty in identifying acceptable concessions that need to go with such a high-profile engagement. The prosecution of Mr Mbowe could be an attempt to further skew the balance of power ahead of a potential meeting.

The state of the ruling party

Intra-party constraints constitute another set of deep-rooted limitations that seem to have tempered the president’s desire for reform.

The ruling party – Chama Cha Mapinduzi – has dominated politics in Tanzania in different forms, comfortably and snobbishly, since independence in 1961. Its survival has always been anchored to its control of the state machinery, an invaluable avenue for accessing unlimited financial resources, organizational assistance, and coercive power. In recent years though, opposition parties have closed the organizational gap, and have increasingly and creatively relied on the public to bridge their financial deficits. The actual dominance of the ruling party has, therefore, been diminishing gradually – a phenomenon that has compelled the institution to increasingly rely on coercion.

Under President Magufuli, the party gained seemingly total but essentially fictitious dominance, as he sought to “finish off” the opposition, by any means. The 84 per cent of presidential votes that the late president won during the 2020 general election, and 98 per cent of parliamentary seats, do not reflect the known political diversity in the country. Nothing, other than the deliberate use of “extra-political” tactics (coercion, malicious exclusion of opposition candidates, and dubious defections) would explain the unprecedented electoral margin seen in 2020. The party’s growing reliance on raw power reveals a blatant admission of organizational weakness – one that the new president has inherited.

Upon taking the leadership of the ruling party in April, the new president made a commitment to safeguard the institution’s culture of “self-assessment and self-correction”, and announced her intention to initiate a review of the party’s “directives and policies” as they relate to vision, ideology, and future plans. The reference to self-assessment and self-correction points to the president’s ambition to reform the party, at least in a bid to consolidate her power, and at most, to give it a new lease of life.

The ruling party, until recently a ferocious election-winning machine, is grappling with a crisis of vision. It has consistently failed to resolve the ideological conundrum that emerged in the period following the collapse of Ujamaa (a socialist experiment pioneered by Julius Nyerere in 1967), and the triumph of neo-liberalism. The party’s constitution has retained a commitment to building a socialist and self-reliant nation, even though its various governments have been steadfast in advancing pure neo-liberal policies. How appealing can a socialist rhetoric be, to a population of predominantly young and educated people that are struggling with unemployment and poverty? It is a question the party would struggle to answer.

A strengthened opposition would be detrimental to President Samia’s distant but inevitable bid for re-election in 2025.

While the party continues to describe its primary base as made up of “farmers and workers”, its upper ranks are dominated by ambitious political and business elites who draw their inspiration from predominantly capitalist societies. Simply put, the party is peddling a (socialist) vision that the majority of its senior, elitist leaders don’t believe in. This bizarre form of duplicity – “socialist” rhetoric for the masses, and neo-liberal sweeteners for the elite – is a fundamental contradiction that has in the past caused the party to engage in policy contestations with its own government.

Since the party’s convoluted vision isn’t as appealing, a majority of those joining its ranks, both from the opposition and the general population, appear to be driven by the potential to access power, and amass the financial and status privileges that come with it. The long-term problem is that cadres with no clear moral compass and a sense of higher purpose can easily be corrupted by power, as epitomized by the ongoing criminal case against a popular CCM member, and former District Commissioner of Moshi, Lengai Ole Sabaya.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan has assumed the leadership of the country, and the ruling party, at a critical moment. There are many political wounds to treat, and differences to address. In spite of an early commitment to pursue reconciliation, changes in the political sphere remain shallow, mainly because of political constraints in the form of a concerted challenge from the opposition, and systemic weaknesses in her own party. The ultimate challenge for her is to strike a progressive balance between her party’s interests, and the nation’s future. Will she find a way out? Time will tell.