Op:Ed: Magufuli is transforming Tanzania’s ruling party from a ‘benign hegemon’ into a malevolent one

TANZANIA’S Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) is the longest-serving ruling party in Africa, having held power since independence in 1961, writes Nolan Quinn.

CCM has previously been dubbed a benign hegemon, winning elections largely—but not entirely—on merit since the advent of multiparty politics in 1992. On October 28, Tanzania will choose a president and members of the country’s National Assembly. This year, few observers expect a fair vote, given incumbent President John Magufuli and his government’s weaponisation of the law in the lead-up to the elections. This march towards authoritarianism appears a stark shift for a country that has been lauded for its traditions of political stability and democratic transfers of power.

CCM’s dominance has roots in Tanzania’s postcolonial nation-building. Julius Nyerere, the revered first president of Tanzania, believed African political parties, formed in response to colonial occupation as opposed to internal issues, were fundamentally different than those in the West. He saw one-party systems, representing the aspirations of an entire nation, as more democratic than multiparty systems, which he argued were prone to factionalism. Ruling party officials, meanwhile, said a one-party system would better align with traditional African forms of governance, which value consensus over competition.

Nyerere, to his credit, exhibited flexibility in his commitment to one-party rule. Before departing his role as CCM chairman in 1990, he encouraged a national debate on pluralism. Yet the commission created to explore the issue found that 77 percent of Tanzanians supported a continuation of one-party rule, with many citizens expressing concerns that multiparty politics would bring instability. (The commission attracted genuine popular interest, though questions were raised about whether it was truly representative.)

In 1992 the constitutional ban on new party registrations was lifted—but CCM has continued to win elections. Polling data by Afrobarometer suggests that Nyerere’s one-party doctrine has had a lasting effect on how Tanzanians view democracy. In 2005, the final year of Benjamin Mkapa’s presidency, only 44 percent of mainland Tanzanians disapproved of one-party rule. Disapproval of one-man and military rule, on the other hand, never fell below 82 percent and 79 percent, respectively, in the seven polls conducted since 2001. And in 2017, 50 percent of respondents said they trust CCM ‘a lot,’ a far higher figure than for opposition political parties (19 percent) and traditional leaders (20 percent).

Tanzanians’ growing resistance to the ruling class appears, in the context of CCM’s enduring popularity, exceptional. However, pushback at present should be seen primarily as a rejection of Magufuli and his quest for one-man rule rather than CCM’s post-liberation ideology. Indeed, many members of the public have called upon the CCM Elders, a group of twenty-one Tanzanian and Zanzibari former presidents and prime ministers, and other prominent party figures to push for a national dialogue that will halt the rapid erosion of the country’s good-government and democratic norms. While the Elders’ formal powers within CCM have diminished in the last fifteen years, their opinions continue to hold unique weight across the political spectrum.

If, as seems likely, Magufuli wins (or successfully steals) this month’s election, the lead-up to 2025 will be critical. The president has said he will ‘respect the constitution’ with regard to term limits, but the speaker of parliament has reportedly indicated he will seek to scrap presidential term limits after the election. This could bring latent intra-party tensions to the surface. Magufuli was originally a compromise candidate without strong backing from any CCM faction, and rumours have emerged throughout his presidency that other party members want him gone. Resistance from within CCM—by members of parliament, the Elders, and other party bigwigs—would probably offer the best chance at rebuffing a third-term bid, given the party’s control of the electoral machinery.

On several occasions, such as when President Mkapa helped end electoral violence in Kenya and when CCM advanced democratic means of conflict resolution in South Sudan, Tanzania’s ruling party has shown its ability and desire to steer African states toward the better angels of their nature. Under Magufuli, CCM is unrecognisable, using violence and intimidation to maintain control. What the party needs now is to rediscover its moral compass and reverse its slide into authoritarianism.

Nolan Quinn is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Programme.

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