Tanzania’s President Magufuli: man of the people, man of the party?

Why the ruling CCM’s new chair might have to start walking back to his car more slowly

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Choosing a party outsider as CCM’s president candidate made sense, but are insiders now regretting it? Credit: GCIS.
Choosing a party outsider as CCM’s president candidate made sense, but are insiders now regretting it? Credit: GCIS.

It’s possible to tell how influential a member of Tanzania’s ruling party is by the time it takes them to walk a couple hundred metres during a parliamentary session. A particularly popular cadre within Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), for example, could take over two hours to make the short journey as their peers throng around them in the hopes of having a word or shaking their hand.

Over the past 20 years, this is not a problem John Pombe Magufuli has often had to contend with. His strolls to and from the debating chamber have always been notably brisk. For most of these years, those walks have been taken as a CCM MP. Since November 2015, they have also been as president after he was picked as the party’s nominee in last year’s election. And as of 22 July, he will also now take those walks as Chair of CCM.

Since independence, Tanzania’s president has always led the ruling party too. But the appointment of Magufuli to the head of CCM last month has raised concerns amongst many within the party.

Ahead of the 2015 elections, nominating a politician seen as a party outsider made sense given CCM’s unpopularity among young voters and its associations with corruption. However, now that this outsider is to lead that party, some insiders claim the former minister of works could make reckless reforms based on his limited understanding of its inner workings.

At the just concluded CCM convention, Jakaya Kikwete, the outgoing party chair and former president, attacked these critics who he claimed had been “propagating and publishing lies”, including the rumour that Magufuli’s ascension to the chair would be quashed at the convention. But their concerns no doubt remain.

Being a Great Leader

Over the decades, CCM has had five chairpersons, including Magufuli. Historically, becoming a Great Leader has required chairs to immerse themselves in the traditions that built and influenced the party. Their success has typically depended on their ability to understand that – like most African liberation parties that have survived over five decades – CCM is not just a political organisation but also a psychological movement, one founded on a coastal, Swahili culture.

The first leader of the party was President Julius Nyerere, who was famed for his oratory skills and use of Swahili. Nyerere was central to the country’s struggle for independence, which was mainly coordinated from the coastal regions, and even after he became president, Nyerere continued to spend hours playing Bao, a popular board game on the coast, with elders in Dar es Salaam.

His successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, was also a master of Swahili and was born and bred on the coast. The third CCM chair, Benjamin Mkapa, had the advantage of having been Nyerere’s long-time student and aide. And although it took some effort, Kikwete managed to master CCM politics by ensuring he attended important funerals in Dar es Salaam and spent time socialising with ordinary members, sitting on mkekas, hugging them dearly, and sharing meals.

But what of President Magufuli?

Dr Benson Bana, a political scientist at the University of Dar es Salaam, downplays the notion that Magufuli does not understand the party, pointing out that he has been a member of it for 40 years. However, it is clear that the new president has not been nearly as engaged in CCM as his predecessors.

This was clearly demonstrated around Tanzania’s recent efforts to reform the constitution. For example, when the Constituent Assembly was created in 2014 as part of the reform process, Magufuli was one of the last of the 629 members to be sworn in and rarely attended sessions.

Moreover, as his CCM colleagues spent hours lobbying each other – often emotionally – before they had to vote on the first draft of the new constitution, Magufuli was notably absent. When the time came to cast his ballot, he simply walked in, voted and left – presumably walking uninterrupted back to his car.

A president for all?

Magufuli’s approach to governance and his decisiveness could be seen as good attributes for president, but they more likely to be an impediment in his role as CCM chair. If Magufuli doesn’t get his hands dirty in party business, it will be tough for him to lead it.

That’s not to say that Magufuli doesn’t have some strong bargaining power as he takes over the chairmanship. Amongst ordinary Tanzanians, he is more popular than his party and still largely enjoys the good will of the public. Given that CCM was predicted to face unprecedented challenges in last year’s election as the opposition united, the fact he eventually led the party to a comfortable victory makes him a party saviour in many people’s eyes. Furthermore, while CCM has been tainted by associations with corruption, Magufuli’s zero tolerance over graft and his reputation as a no-nonsense ‘Bulldozer’ have ignited popular optimism around his presidency.


All these dynamics reflect well on the party’s new chair. However, the problem for CCM is that it doesn’t own any of these successes. Magufuli frequently says “I am the president for all regardless of your political party” and refers to “my government”. This is in contrast to his predecessors who would emphasise that they were overseeing a CCM government and often talk of the party.

The strategic decision to separate Magufuli from CCM during the 2015 election was a smart campaign move, but as he spins further from traditional party control, CCM insiders may be regretting it. Meanwhile, his distance from the party will no doubt make it harder for Magufuli to control it.

Another challenge Magufuli may face as chair is financial. Although CCM is historically a party of peasants and workers, businesspeople have long been influential within the party and been its key donors. Outgoing chair Kikwete revealed at the recent party convention that many members are not paying their annual fees, forcing the party to depend even more on business people for survival. But given that many of CCM’s wealthy donors have been implicated in Magufuli’s campaign against tax avoidance, they may be reluctant to give money to the party under its new leadership.

If Magufuli takes the same stern and reforming approach in governing CCM as he has in his presidency, he risks alienating the majority of party members who want to maintain the status quo. And adding this internal party struggle to the wars this one-man army is fighting on various other political fronts could see Magufuli’s overall ability to wield control stretched to its limit.

His only choice therefore may be to build alliances with people in the party and in the business community who will stand with him during difficult times as he shapes his presidency. To do this, he might have to surrender some of his authority to powerful quarters within CCM and, crucially, start walking to his car a little more slowly.

*African Arguments.Erick Kabendera is a Tanzanian freelance journalist.

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