Life presidency creeping into Tanzania through Magufuli, his “peasant” and loyal MPs 

TANZANIANS are worried that President John Magufuli is a life-president in the making. For the third time in four years, the president has made a public statement that implies he is not ready to leave power.

At a public rally, in Songwe region on Saturday 5 October 2019, Magufuli hinted that his moment to leave would be when he is sure that his successor would not sabotage the infrastructural projects he has started. 

He said: “I do not know why I decided to run for office…it is a burden… But when I consider the sufferings that people are going through, I say to myself ‘it was necessary for me to do it.’ If I leave, will these projects be implemented? If I leave today, will Stigler’s Gorge (hydropower project) be constructed? If I leave, will the Standard Gauge Railway be constructed? If I leave, will the aircraft be purchased? Why were they not purchased all those years (before I came into power)?  When I consider all this… that’s why I tell myself, I have to be on the job.” 

His statement has provoked debates and criticism in Tanzania and on social media, among common and prominent people, raising worries that he was slowly paving a way for his indispensability and life-presidency. 

Serious people link the president’s statement to a recent move by some members of parliament from his party considering to table an independent bill for the amendment of the constitution on the matter of extending the presidential terms from five to seven years in order to avail Magufuli with enough time to complete his projects.

In addition to that, a self-styled “peasant” has filed a petition in the High Court of Tanzania seeking to remove presidential term limits in the constitution. As of now, the constitution of Tanzania stipulates that a president can hold office for a period of five years, and can be reelected only once in a succession of elections.

But Magufuli sycophants have been struggling to give him a free ride. In 2017 they attempted, in vain, to lobby for the amendment of their party constitution in order for a sitting president to become an automatic and unopposed presidential candidate in the next election. When that move flopped, they sought ways to extended Magufuli’s presidential term. The plan is still on. 

With his recent statement that he does not trust anyone for this job, the president is unknowingly revealing his plan by taking everyone an extra mile in this discussion. Some of his assistants have anonymously confessed that he is the person behind the mission of his “loyal” MPs and the “peasant”.

While it is true that he has been struggling to accomplish a lot of infrastructural megaprojects in a short time, it is equally true that some of these projects may not be complete before 2020 or 2025. And if that is the case and he has to stand by his statement, he may be there to stay for a much longer time.

Zitto Kabwe, an economist and leader of an opposition party that has a solid block in Zanzibar, ACT-Wazalendo, responds by reminding Magufuli that “even colonial powers built railways and ports, and they purchased aircraft,” but they were kicked out for Tanganyika to be independent.

One former minister enumerates hundreds of industries, hydropower projects, airports, aircraft, schools, hospitals built during Julius Nyerere’s presidency. He adds: “Yet Nyerere left power voluntarily even though some of his cronies were urging him to stay on.” 

It is obvious that Magufuli, in many of his political operations since 2015, has been following the footsteps of his mentor – Paul Kagame – undermining the parliament and judiciary, brutally silencing critics, the media and the opposition. But these operations have made him unpopular. Even on this recent move, he is borrowing a leaf from most of his neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

In 2016, at a public rally in Geita region, Magufuli said he was “the only person who knows the best interests of his country.” At another public event in Dar es Salaam this year, he repeated the same message by telling his listeners that he was not sure if his successors would be capable of carrying on his “good job.” 

For him to say this publicly for the third time in four years, it is an indication of his strong resolve to cling on to power. He has a tendency of complaining about the burden of the presidency that he carries as if he wants to lay it down. Once he has said he is not interested in extending his term. But analysts and historians understand that such a statement from a politician is a strategy to seek sympathy. It is a trick that has been employed by others before him in other countries.

Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1971-79), at the start of his reign, following a coup that ended President Milton Obote’s rule in 1971, declared: “I am not power-ambitious. My job is to handover a clean government to someone else…I am fighting corruption… I will go back to barracks… I am the first African who is not power ambitious..”

He later called himself a God-sent messenger for Africa. But he never called an election to handover power. He ruled his country without parliament and later declared himself a life president. His eight-year rule ended with profuse bloodshed as the Tanzanian and Ugandan troops toppled him. 

The current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, came to power in 1986. Five times since then, he has promised to retire, to no avail. The first time was in 1987, but in 2000 he declared himself as “the only person with a vision to lead Uganda.” He has contested and “won” every election and has recently influenced the removal of a constitutional age limit that was blocking his next bid.

Paul Kagame is the only president of Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. In Early 2015, he promised to retire. After gauging his country’s political landscape – which involved over 2 million signatures asking him to stay on – he told his nation on 31 December the same year, that he was considering to run for office for the third time. His statement was followed by a referendum and subsequent constitutional reforms allowing him to rule Rwanda for even a longer period. He may be in power until 2034 or later.

Since Magufuli has once acknowledged Kagame’s mentorship, it goes without saying that he is prepared to follow suit. Therefore, when it comes to a quest to extend presidential terms or to remove term limits, it is clear who is pushing the agenda.  

A highly placed anonymous source has told SAUTI KUBWA: “Magufuli is a king and CCM is a monarch. In African terms, the king owns land, money, military power, judicial powers, legislative powers – all in one person. Magufuli gives money to whoever he wishes, and all people beg for money from him. He gives land and takes it away as he wishes. He hires and fires with impunity. He makes laws and nullifies the existing ones. This is the imperial presidency which now turns into life presidency.” 

Seasoned lawyer Tundu Lissu has a punchy comment: “By beginning to talk about extending his tenure beyond that limited by our constitution, President Magufuli has started on a slippery and dangerous path trodden by African autocrats past and present. Like Mobutu Sese Seko Robert, Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir before him, that path will not only destroy our country, it will ultimately destroy him as well.” 


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