Let them eat cake” – Marie Antoinette

The presidential honeymoon is not yet over. President Magufuli is still enjoying the popularity he has earned in his holy war on grand corruption. Christened “bursting the boils”, this crusade is however raising eyebrows among champions of the rule of law.

Such criticisms, or rather critiques, have not passed unnoticed in the corridors of powers. In a clear breach of the separation of the church and state, recently the president used Sunday’s Catholic Mass in Arusha to insist that the bursting of boils through the suspension of public officials should not be interpreted as cruelty. For him, all those civil servants have breached the code of ethics for public service.

Elsewhere the president chided those who defend them, stating – sarcastically – that such critics may also be boils therefore they will start watching them. These human rights defenders have been wondering what is wrong with demanding a fair hearing – and indeed trial – for the ‘accused’? To them, justice is best served when one and the same person is not a judge and prosecutor, that is, when there is separation of powers.

Recall, for instance, the case of officials who were suspended for travelling abroad without the permission from the State House. It is claimed that they applied; however, they did not receive a response on time. Given that Tanzania was regarded as the coordinating secretariat – and thus host – of an important anticorruption event, they opted to rush there, hoping their boss would cover for them. Alas, he got dismissed.

What if they were unfairly suspended? Would they get a public apology? When?

Away with constitutional procedures, some may even dare to say. How many boils have they burst? Why don’t we just let the President do his job of bursting them?

Many of us are indeed not happy with the state of corruption in the country. We are yearning to see all those behind the Escrow and Lugumi scandals, among others, have their day in court. Yet some of us need all this to be done according to the legal and institutional parameters we have been busy building. That is why we are still calling for a new constitution that would curtail the concentration of powers on one entity.

Yet in the context of a centralized system, we appreciate the role of a strong leader in enabling an anti-corruption dispensation. More significantly, we are aware that in the short term things might be difficult even to those who are supposed to benefit from the war on corruption. As they note, the ‘circulation of money’ is limited in the sense that it is no longer ‘trickling down’ to them from the ‘boils’ that have been ‘burst.’

Probably nothing captures this irony more than the sugar scarcity saga that came in the wake of the presidential decision to intervene on its importation. By deciding to crack on those who allegedly hoard sugar to create artificial scarcity, Magufuli seems to be living up to the standards of the very person that some people believe is like him i.e. the late Edward Sokoine. However, it was during the latter’s crack on ‘economic saboteurs’ that Tanzania experienced its worst shortage of foodstuffs in shops yet.

Reminiscing on the battle for sugar that has been recurring since the beginning of liberalization, a seasoned politician notes: “I was almost killed by sugar importing mafia!” Such is the gravity of the war against any corrupt element in the country. It has to involve the society as a whole and not only one individual no matter how good his/her intentions are. Haven’t we seen benevolent dictators turning into despots? After all, we are told that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

For sure, when it comes to institutional building, it is one thing for the Executive to give additional money to the judiciary and quite another to nudge it to speed up the cases on corruption so that the government coffers can get filled when the public prosecutor wins. How does one win against corruption by doing the very thing that those involved in it are accused of? Is this how one builds an independent judiciary?

One cannot help but wonder whether we are eroding even the few gains in the separation of powers between the three arms of the state namely the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. If this accusation from a Member of Parliament, Zitto Kabwe, is true then the signs of the times are troubling: “Whenever we challenge the government here, we are being given letters and sometimes taken to the ethics committee. That is a threat to us and it diminishes our freedom of expression”.

It is thus in the long run that a sustained war on corruption that goes hand in hand with strengthening oversight institutions and upholding the constitution would yield a scaled-up ‘trickle down effect’. What we are experiencing now is a serious strain on what has been referred to as the ‘economy of affection’ or ‘shadow economy.’ The ‘patrons’ of corruption can hardly share their looted money with the people in the constituencies. It may take time for the people to get used to be free from ‘patronage’.

However, when the presidential honeymoon is over it is not the burst boils that people will be hungering for. Rather, ‘a better life for all’. Why not institutionalize it now?