By Sabatho Nyamsenda

Africa’s encounter with Europe since the 15th century produced, inter alia, the colonial state and the dependent economy. The colonial state’s major function was to instil fear, dehumanize and brutalize African people into submission and facilitate the expropriation Africa’s natural wealth, resources and labour. If African nationalism succeeded to expel the physical presence of the colonial power, it failed to dismantle the colonial state and dependent economy.

Colonial laws banning independent media, trade unions, multi-party politics, local governments, and even independent thinking were inherited, reproduced and enforced across Africa by the African petty bourgeois class that took power from the colonial masters regardless of its ideological orientation.

In capitalist Kenya, Marxist activists were jailed for possessing seditious (read: communist) literature. In ‘socialist’ Tanzania, communist literature made into the lecture halls and independent study groups, but it was supposed to end at the level of reflections, not actions. Thus, Marxist organisations and mouthpieces were liquidated, just as the working-class takeover of private factories or socialisation of nationalized enterprises were discouraged and peasants organizing through autonomous egalitarian cooperatives was abolished.

Land laws bestowing the ultimate ownership (radical title) in the president, who can legally expropriate land for ‘development’ purposes, laws forcing peasants to produce cash crops, etc, were embraced by the Africa post-colonial state, Tanzania being one of them. These were not copied from communist China (which had a very progressive land reform) nor Cuba, but from the colonial state. They were not a continuation of precolonial African ‘traditions’, but colonial technologies of power.

But why would the African ruling class reproduce such practices? Well, it was a ruling class, alienated from the people and looking to the Western bourgeoisie as a model. But the international economic structures put up by the Western bourgeoisie prevented the African ruling class to become a full-fledged bourgeoisie. As such, the African petty bourgeoisie had no alternative but to serve as a local agent of foreign capital either privately or through state-owned enterprises. And for that to happen, the same machinery used by colonialists – the colonial state – had to be maintained and recharged.

To be sure, there were attempts made by the African ruling class to cut the umbilical cord that connected it to the Western bourgeoisie. This was done politically through asserting the African state’s right to self-determination and economically by ‘decentralizing’ Western industrialisation through import substitution industrialisation while fighting for a more equitable international order. There were also attempts to gain legitimacy from the masses through by instituting welfare policies.

The Neoliberal Assault

Albeit progressive, such attempts were not meant to transfer power to the labouring classes, nor did they facilitate the delinking of African economies from the imperialist economies. The crisis of monopoly capitalism in the imperialist centre hit the African periphery even harder, producing the worst crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Monopoly capital responded to that crisis by restoring its power through what came to be known as neoliberal reforms: the African petty bourgeoisie was put in its proper position as a comprador class, completely detached from the masses, its power to assert itself effectively buried. The African state was further compradorized, forced to cut social expenditure, and relaunched as an exclusive tool for serving the interests of imperialist capital. The neoliberal African state, therefore, became weak vis-à-vis capitalists, but its violent machinery in quashing the working people was enhanced.

With imperialists – masquerading as foreign investors and development partners – in the driver’s seat, the labouring classes were further attacked: jobs disappeared as factories were closed and turned into warehouses for imported goods, social services were commodified, and wages and producer prices went down in real terms while the cost of living skyrocketed.

Despite the change of ruling parties, the neoliberal African state continues to use its coercive devices to kill, bury people alive, forcefully evict smallholder producers from the land to make way for large scale capitalist companies, demolish entire shanty towns and render thousands of poor people homeless, etc. All this is done in the service of monopoly capital and is protected by law – land laws, labour laws, anti-terrorist laws, media laws, cyber crime laws, etc. Neoliberalism is a crime against humanity and both imperialists and their African compradors should be put on trial.

While its real face is authoritarian, neoliberalism created an illusion for the African masses. Imperialists created a caricature of liberal ‘democracy’ that Julius Nyerere – the founding president of Tanzania – sarcastically referred to as “coca-cola democracy.” The African petty bourgeoisie in power was forced to open up some political space through multiparty politics and the legalization of independent associations. For imperialism, multiparty elections in Africa expanded the sphere of faithful agents who compete among themselves to loot their people in the service of imperialism. It is not by coincidence, therefore, African countries where multiparty politics is said to thrive, whether in South Africa or Kenya, have the highest levels of inequality, which burst into violent conflicts from time to time.

This does not mean that the masses did not fight for opening up the political space. They had wanted the destruction of the colonial state inherited by the ruling elite and the institution of social justice reforms. Theirs was a vision of the new politics that Wamba dia Wamba – the Congolese revolutionary intellectual – referred to as “emancipative politics based on people’s sovereignty and political capacity” under which “state power will be limited and subordinated under the people’s control.”

However, most avenues for emancipative politics were hijacked by petty-bourgeois politicians and activists – under the umbrella of ruling parties, opposition parties or donor-funded non-governmental organisations – and at times by imperialist agencies, which led to the deradicalization and distortion of working people’s demands.

The Crisis of Neoliberalism

The 2008 crisis of neoliberal capitalism delegitimized not only the rule of the market but also the elite-based multiparty politics. That half of the electorate boycotted the 2010 general elections in Tanzania was a clear manifestation of the loss of faith in electoral politics. Those who voted threw their weight behind a populist candidate, Dr Wilbrod Slaa [then] of CHADEMA, who campaigned on free education and healthcare, as well the end of grand corruption and tax bonanza to multinational corporations. CHADEMA, the opposition party, increased its share of parliamentary seats and presidential votes – downing former President Jakaya Kikwete’s share of votes to 61% from the 80% he had garnered in 2005 elections.

It was after the 2010 elections that the petty-bourgeois elites started calling for a benevolent dictatorship. John Mnyika, the current secretary-general of CHADEMA referred to Kikwete as a “weak” president, implying that the country deserved a strongman who could make tough decisions. On different occasions, the US-trained January Makamba – then a deputy minister in Kikwete’s government – and his mentor, former East African Community Secretary General Juma V. Mwapachu, both called for the need for a benevolent dictatorship.

With no legacy to leave behind apart from massive dispossession of the country’s resources and excessive looting of the treasury, Kikwete launched a constitutional writing process in 2011. It hastened the intra-elite battles anchored in parochial nationalism and religious and ethnic chauvinism, threatening to break the nation-state itself. Kikwete had to usurp the process, resulting in the opposition’s withdrawal from the Constitutive Assembly and the stall of the process. In his last years in power, Kikwete’s government enacted some of the most draconian laws that criminalized online activism and publishing of independent statistics.

From Maguphoria to Maguphobia

Towards the 2015 general elections, Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), was embroiled in the factional rivalry between two giants: Edward Lowassa, a former prime minister, with a strong backing of the business sector and Bernard Membe who was said to have the backing of Kikwete’s family. When Lowassa’s name was scrapped off the list of CCM’s candidates, his supporters strove to prevent Membe from winning. This paved the way for John Pombe Magufuli, who was seen as a ‘clean’ candidate, capable of restoring people’s faith in the ruling party.

Lowassa switched to the opposition. He became CHADEMA’s presidential candidate in the 2015 general elections supported by a coalition of opposition parties known as Umoja wa Katiba ya Wananchi (UKAWA), which was a byproduct of the stalled constitutional review process. In a dramatic turn of events, CHADEMA’s would-be candidate, Dr Slaa resigned from his secretary-general post and supported CCM’s Magufuli.

Magufuli eventually won the presidency, but by the lowest margin in Tanzania’s history. Once in power, he cracked down on corrupt and irresponsible officials and cut down lavish government expenditure; his name earned international acclaim. Newspapers – from Australia to Uganda – could not hide their envy of the new president. The hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo trended in a short social media honeymoon, dubbed “Maguphoria” by one political commentator, that lasted between November and mid-2016.

Between late 2016 and mid-2019, Maguphoria turned into Maguphobia, when Magufuli did not meet the expectations of the middle and upper classes at home and imperialism abroad.

Imperialism expected his regime to surrender to its dictates and facilitate the plunder and pillage of the country’s resources by giant corporations. Elites within his party and the business sector expected he would not disturb their channels of squandering the country, and the middle classes did not want him to play with their personal freedoms. The working people saw him as their liberator, who would stop the dispossession of their resources and deliver social justice. But Magufuli saw himself to be above all classes and would not be swayed by demands of any class.

He had his own agenda and demands to each class. To imperialists, he was not ready to take their orders and wanted an exchange based on the market, as opposed to the extra-economic robbery of the country’s resources. He also envisioned an industrial economy, where raw materials produced in the country would be locally processed and sold. He wanted local politicians and businessmen to stop being agents of foreign goods and instead spearhead the country’s industrialisation.

To the masses, Magufuli expected obedience and hard work only (Hapa Kazi Tu) and satisfaction with the little concessions that he would make. Opposition parties, NGOs and media scrutiny were therefore seen as an unnecessary nuisance. He, therefore, restricted their operation.

Magufuli accused, rightly so, opposition politicians and donor-funded activists of being imperialist stooges. However, the term imperialism became so vulgarized that it lost its radical content: opposing a government policy (even if the policy itself originated from imperialists) would be counted as being pro-imperialist. And as if to prove Magufuli correct, opposition politicians and activists turned to imperialist governments and agencies and invited their intervention to restore ‘democracy’ (i.e. regime change).

As criticism on Magufuli mounted, the coercive devices of the state moved in to salvage the image of the president and his government by arresting politicians and activists at times using unnecessary terror and force. At the same time, pro-government “free activists” emerged, using their news channels to taint images of government critics and call for their assassination. There also emerged ‘unknown assailants’ who abducted critics, torturing them and even attempted to murder them. Tundu Lissu, the opposition politician, narrowly escaped death after being shot sixteen times.

The president occasionally donned in military fatigues to send a clear message that he was THE Commander in Chief. Photos and videos circulating on social media showed the tightening of the president’s security detail. Now, we know, from leaked phone conversations, that there were plots involving former top officials in the ruling party who had previously served in the army and intelligence organs to shorten his term, or at least make him a one-term president. Magufuli himself revealed that he was poisoned by jealous senior colleagues when he was a minister under Mkapa presidency.

With an attempted murder on the newly elected Ethiopian prime minister and a coup in Zimbabwe, Magufuli was therefore not naïve about in-party fights. Nor could he take lightly the opposition’s collusion with imperialist agencies. He also decried the imperialist invasion of African countries and murdering of African presidents, referring to NATO’s invasion of Libya to ‘restore democracy’. This could be one explanation of his authoritarian turn.

Magufuli’s regime has not survived by sheer force. Viewed through class lenses, the major victims of the regime’s authoritarianism were the middle classes whose spaces of expression were narrowed. The underclass might have a different opinion, since, it is under this regime when street vendors won the right to the city and the demands of the rural producers to have title deeds of grabbed lands revoked were met. The Citizen newspaper – a corporate mouthpiece which is no fan of the current regime – collected opinions of street vendors about Magufuli, and this is what it reported:

“Petty traders who talked to The Citizen are all [full of] praises to President John Magufuli who gave them the green light to do business freely and repeatedly warned city authorities against harassing people ‘who voted him into the presidency.’”

“The president wants authorities to leave the traders alone or create a conducive environment for them to do business.”

“‘President Magufuli has done us a great thing. He gave us the freedom we never had before. We were extremely being harassed by city militia’ says Ms Mtongo, who has for the past nine years survived as a food vendor at Posta Mpya.

The president’s rallies are in most cases turned into people’s courts, where poor citizens prosecute government officials and land grabbers and win unprecedented victories since the start of the neoliberal era. This is one aspect that most analysts of Magufuli’s reforms have ignored.

When Elephants Make Love

From late-2019 to the present, with the president having gotten a grip of both the government and the party, his regime appears to have become more accommodative and tolerant (I make this observation with all precautions it deserves because political behaviour can be swayed by events). Tanzania seems to be slowly transiting from the era of Kutumbua Majipu (instant dismissal of top officials for alleged misuse of public office and disrespect of the president) to Msamaha wa Rais (presidential pardon and reappointment).

The Lowassa-Rostam faction was welcome back to the ruling party and is seen rubbing shoulders with the president in official functions. And the defiant former top officials of the ruling party (Makamba Jr & Sr, Nnauye, Kinana et al.) have all received the presidential pardon – after apologizing, of course. Former President Kikwete’s wife, Salma, was appointed to Parliament. Tycoons jailed for alleged economic sabotage crimes have reached a settlement with the chief prosecutor and got released.

The president also seems to have come to terms with imperialism. His purpose was, after all, not to take over the means of production, but to renegotiate the terms of exploitation by international capital. The war on mining giants seems to have ended after Barrick Gold conceded 16% of shares (and the yet-to-be-seen 50% share of benefits) to the government.

On its part, the government has yielded its radical demands for beneficiation of minerals in the country and arbitration of trade disputes using the country’s legal structures and rules. The robbers of our national resources have been baptized and become development partners. The World Bank has released funds it had withheld and has gone ahead to declare Tanzania a middle-income country. The USAID and other imperialist agencies have pledged more funding.

Some air of political liberalization seems to be setting in. It began with the president’s invitation of opposition leaders to the 2019 Independence Day (December 9) celebration and CHADEMA leaders used the occasion to call for national reconciliation. Top opposition figures with court cases have either been fined (as an alternative to jail) or released under presidential or magisterial pardon.

Above all, the president himself has promised free and fair elections and urged the police not to use force during the campaigns. On another occasion, he told the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB), who had planned to build an office in his hometown of Chato, not to do things just to please him. Was this message meant to be sent to all bureaucrats?

Recently, Tundu Lissu, the regime’s bête noir, returned to the country. He was received and escorted by hundreds of his supporters who chanted, “We want a free Electoral Commission.” There was no police arrest despite earlier police warning against gathering at the airport.

The 2019 civic elections indeed spelt danger after 94% of opposition candidates were disqualified, which prompted opposition’s boycott. However, CCM’s 2020 nomination process could be a sign of hope, since it was an open process, with votes counted in public and winners declared on the spot. Of course, the final nomination will be done by the party’s top organs. Would the same process be applied to the country’s general election to be held in October 2020?

It seems Tanzania might be heading to a new phase of elite compromise. This could mean the widening of the political space – which is a positive development. However, political liberalisation in Tanzania has always been an addendum to a larger economic project – market liberalisation – which leads to pauperisation and dispossession of the working poor.

Externally, Magufuli’s regime seems to re-align itself to the demands of imperialism, whether Western government, multinational corporations or imperialist agencies. Could this signal the end of concessions it made to the working poor? At a Commonwealth Summit in the 1970s, Nyerere summed up the effects of the Cold War on poor countries using a Swahili adage. The then Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew retorted: “The fact is, as the President of Tanzania has said, when elephants fight, the grass suffers. The thought occurred to me that when elephants flirt, the grass also suffers. And when they make love, it is disastrous.”