On collision course: anti-corruption in Tanzania under Magufuli

Nicknamed the ‘bulldozer’, Pombe Magufuli is fast becoming a proverbial knight in shining armour just weeks after he was sworn-in as the fifth president of Tanzania. His radical approach to public service reform, economic austerity and anti-corruption is being hailed across the African continent and has been a subject of viral memes on twitter.

A day after he was inaugurated, for example, the president took an unannounced and unguided tour of one of the national hospitals, and finding it in a shocking state – with patients sleeping on the hard floor and vital diagnosis machines broken – fired the board and acting director there and then (see here). In another surprise visit by Magufuli’s new Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, to the port in Dar es Salaam, it was discovered that taxes amounting to 40 million USD had not been paid. The president immediately suspended the Tanzania Revenue Authority’s (TRA) Commissioner General and had him arrested together with five other top TRA officials.

Magufuli has also banned business class travels for all public officers except the President, Vice President and Prime Minister, introduced significant cuts in tax exemptions and replaced the often lavish national independence celebrations with a nation-wide clean-up campaign. He has promised zero-tolerance for corruption and ordered the creation of a special court for corruption cases (see here).

These unconventional methods raise some interesting issues concerning the fight against the endemic graft that has dogged the African continent in the past 40 years.

One argument is that when corruption is entrenched and normalised, as it is believed to be the case in Tanzania, such an abrupt intervention is critical. The radical approach can introduce ‘uncertainty’ in the corruption-prone environment, breaking the shared expectations and resulting predictability that sustain corrupt systems. The chain of corruption can be broken, albeit temporarily, when potential wrongdoers are unable to anticipate the type of response their actions will elicit from the top political echelons.

Additionally, the abrupt crackdown on corruption can instil fear among the ‘usual’ offenders working in cahoots that often straddle the private sector and government. This is already happening in Nigeria where the fear of the new president, Muhammadu Buhari, is said to ‘be whipping [the] Nigerian bureaucracy into shape’ (see here). Indeed, instilling fear was one of the important weapons in the anti-corruption arsenal of Singapore under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. When he was quizzed about his fear-instilling methods, Yew once remarked: “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

But Yew seemed to understand that healing the cancer of corruption requires a careful combination of fear, voluntary compliance by public officials and broad-based community involvement. In addition to raising salaries of public officials, there were efforts to encourage the Singaporean public to be vigilant and to take full ownership of the war on corruption. Incidentally, the consistent show of political will and commitment to fight corruption is a decisive short-cut to winning the hearts and minds of the citizens to rally behind an anti-corruption campaign. A genuine commitment to tackling corruption by a country’s number 1 can inspire a badly needed citizens-led anticorruption movement and become the single most important bulwark for the islands of integrity or the so-called ‘positive-outliers’ in Tanzania.

The challenge is, however, that the political conditions that exist in Tanzania may not be conducive for the Singaporean approach to anti-corruption. Lee Kuan Yew could literally go after anyone suspected of corruption without risking his political career; he could afford to step on big toes and still remain in power. Being the most popular figure in his People’s Action Party (PAP), and in Singaporean politics in general, Lee was relatively unencumbered by political machinations, a luxury that Magufuli on the other hand can only dream of. Although he is credited with being one of the most consistently well performing ministers, is relatively young (55 years old) and has a chemistry PhD, Magufuli was not his party’s (Chama Cha Mapinduzi) first choice. He owes his nomination to the alleged fall-out between the party’s top brass and the former Prime Minister, Ngoyai Lowassa, who was more popular and viewed as the strongest contender.

While Magufuli’s impressively ‘clean’ record during his tenure as the minister of Public Works demonstrates his commitment to integrity, and lends credence to his anti-corruption drive, one wonders whether he has the political wherewithal to take on the big wigs of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) when the need arises. He might be ‘clean’ but some influential members of the CCM may have put their hands in the cookie jar; can the president remain true to his word and crack the whip without fear and favour?

For someone who started so brightly, showing prejudice in an anti-corruption clampdown can cause more damage than was ever inflicted by all the former presidents combined. It has the potential to generate more cynicism among the ordinary Tanzanians who have pinned their hopes on him to take the country forward.

In the context of multi-party pluralism, the war on endemic corruption can never be a one man show. The new president needs to find strong allies within the CCM and the bureaucracy. The former is more urgent. Intra-party collective action against corruption will sustain the momentum and ensure that other arms of state, especially the judiciary, take anti-corruption much more seriously. But where the incentives for intra-party anticorruption collective action will come from is, so far, an enigma. Why should the CCM be more committed to the war on corruption now than ever before?

Moletsane Monyake, University of Sussex

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