Why is Tanzania so quiet?

Amid turmoil in East Africa, Tanzania has kept it cool. So is Tanzanian President John Magufuli doing a good job?

Tanzania''s President elect John Pombe Magufuli
Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli took power in November 2015 [Reuters/Emmanuel Herman]

How has Tanzania been faring under the stewardship of one John Pombe Magufuli these past 24 months? The short answer is that we are still being our usual dependably peaceful quiet selves, stubbornly refusing to feed into the “Africa is a Headcase” narrative at some cost to ourselves.

If you take a look around the neighbourhood, you can imagine how we have learned to work this image in our favour. It keeps the donors and investors happy, and more importantly, it means nobody is trying to learn Kiswahili and actually listen in on our business. This year we can be thankful that Kenya – our beloved sibling and most annoying rival – is keeping it together as best it can, so far. They have held the international press busy and distracted, bless them.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, also considering a flirtation with voting, has never been a republic nor indeed meaningfully democratic, but we’re living in the hope that someday soon it could happen. They too, thankfully, have similarly kept the international press busy and distracted.

Notice that both countries are being led by sons of former presidents, a particular circumstance we have yet to experience in good old Tanzania and are doing our best to avoid. We like our presidents to be real men of the land, village-born boys raised on public schooling and scholarships, boys who grew up to be long-suffering civil servants moulded by our most dependable institution: the state.

I am just back from Mwanza, the largest city in the Lake Zone of Tanzania where President John Pombe Magufuli chose to celebrate his first biennial this November. It was interesting to hear local opinions about his visit as this part of the country is ancestral home for us both.

More so for President Magufuli who has never lost the heavy clunkiness of his Sukuma accent. His speeches are more interesting for it in our mellifluous honey-bell of a creole language, Kiswahili. In it, my president usually sounds overly-excited, furious and gauche. To be fair, he tends to have a little bit of all of that going on at any given moment.

On the main thoroughfare connecting Mwanza City to the airport, there is a bridge that President Magufuli formally opened during his stint in the city before moving on to remoter parts to impress villagers who don’t have running water with the shine of his motorcade. This bridge he opened is, in fact, a pedestrian bridge, and the only one I have ever seen that puts on a light show at night. In many ways, this one little thing is indicative of President Magufuli‘s leadership style so far. There is flash. There is bang. There is also a lot of underwhelm. I mean…a footbridge?


It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nobody has more good intentions for Tanzania than President Magufuli. While his presidential candidacy was the result of a spectacular fall-out within the grand old party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution – CCM), during his campaign Magufuli the Unexpected made a massive impression on a voting populace left with few credible choices. As we Tanzanians like to swing the pendulum between laissez-faire and dirigiste styles of governance, his no-nonsense road-building efficiency came across well as an antidote to his predecessor’s extreme relaxedness.

True to his word, Magufuli has been reforming. He has fearlessly jailed magnates and big corrupt names, taxed the living daylights out of tax-evading industries, and scrubbed the port of Dar-es-Salaam to almost-clean, to name a few of his feats. The civil service is being exorcised of ghost workers and people with fake academic credentials. Roads are being built, and houses are being destroyed to make more room for even more roads to be built. Ministers and heads of public institutions are getting hired on a daily basis, and also fired on a daily basis if they do not meet his high expectations. There is less corruption of a certain kind. And there is more force being applied.

President Magufuli thinks that schoolgirls who get pregnant should be cut off from their right to education and that a free press is a threat to “his” democracy. Under Magufuli we have witnessed a level of harassment of the opposition that is unprecedented, culminating in an assassination attempton the vocal lawyer and constitutional rights defender Tundu Lissu that shook the nation right down to its bone marrow. The presence of state security organs in public has gone from comforting to menacing. There is a darkness creeping upon us.


Our social contract is unwritten in Tanzania but it is there, and we abide by it. This has never been a one-man show, not since Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere apologised to us for getting economics so horribly wrong when he retired in 1985, and we grappled on with the vision of a nation united.

We are not a “peaceful” country by default so much as by design, though no matter how many times I write this out loud, fellow Africans do not want to hear it. Apparently, complexity is boring.

As much as Magufuli is doing the best he can, he is also doing the worst he can. Never in my short life has the government of my beloved country been more conservative, more intolerant, more paranoid and economically illiterate and impervious to good advice, more saddled with gun-happy thugs. I want to say that this is new. Three retired presidents live in my city, and we have buried one: there is some insight that comes with this sort of thing. So yeah, this is new. And not unexpected.

John Pombe Magufuli has had an interesting two years in office. The first two years are always tough for everyone: the incumbent is finding his feet and getting drenched in the murky waters of head of statehood. Our republic has always been divided about our president, no matter who he is or was. Some of us love them, some of us don’t, and all of this is done in Kiswahili where no outsider can get a look-in. This country really is a republic and if President Magufuli is going to make it through the obligatory ten-year term, two years in is far too early to be certain about anything. They only break at five, so I am afraid it is too soon to tell.

In the meantime, we are going to keep it steady, plough the fields and keep the elephants un-extinct and all of that. Check again in about another two years when the general elections are hotting up, there might be something to say then. In the meantime: Idhaa ya Kiswahili, people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.