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Dilemmas of Quick Reformer

The news that Mo Ibrahim Prize committee could not find a suitable candidate for the prize of Achievement in African Leadership was taken with some surprise in Tanzania.
Masud Hossain
20.6.2016

Last week the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced that there would be no winner for the Mo Ibrahim Prize of Achievement in African Leadership for 2015. As we know, the award is given to a former African head of the state who was democratically elected and who left the office after serving his or her constitutionally mandated term and who demonstrated exceptional leadership.

This is the fifth time when the Mo Ibrahim Prize committee, where Martti Ahtisaari is also a member, failed to find an African leader meeting the criteria for the prize. This is not surprising; while majority of African leaders are extending their stay in office either by changing the constitution or by denouncing it, the pool of candidates for the prize is getting narrower.

However, in Tanzania it is different; Tanzania’s Presidents have regularly left their office after their constitutionally defined terms and handed over the power to an elected President. In the latest presidential elections in 2015, President Jakaya Kikwete handed over the power to the new President John Magufuli.

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So, the news that Mo Ibrahim Prize committee could not find a suitable candidate for the prize was taken with some surprise. The news was the front page news for Tanzanian English language newspaper - The Citizen. The newspaper lamented that the retired president of Tanzania, Kikwete, who was democratically elected and who handed over the power after his term to a democratically elected new president failed to receive the prize.

The newspaper however, forgot to mention that while he timely handed over the power, during his presidency he however, did very poor in terms of good governance and rule of law. Kikwete’s second term was full of corruption scandals, where high officials, including ministers, were implicated.  As a result, the Tanzanian presidential elections in 2015 were fought over the issue of corruption; almost all the candidates made corruption as their main campaign issue. To me it is not surprising that Kikwete was not qualified for Mo Ibrahim prize.

Since elections were fought over the issue of corruption, and to clean-up the reputation of the dominant political party, CCM, soon after coming to power, the new President Magufuli started his drive against corruption, misuse of state revenue, and ineffective public services.

While his drive is praised by the people, he however gave little attention to the legal procedures and institutions that are central for rule of law and good governance. Almost arbitrarily he sacked the alleged corrupt officials without giving them any opportunity to defend. Some human rights organizations while initially became concerned about Magufuli’s style of fighting against corrupt officials, they however, were not very vocal since the question was about the corrupt officials, who were perennially protected by the political elite.

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Apparently, for quick and smooth implementation of his reform measures, President Magufuli also took some initiatives related to the work of the Parliament and to the political space of the opposition parties that have raised serious concern in the civil society of the country.

In the beginning of the year, it was declared that in order to cut the government expenditure, the live coverage of parliamentary session will not be continued. The decision became effective in the second half of April just before the important budget session of the Parliament. The decision of banning the live coverage allegedly, helped the controversial Deputy Speaker of the House, representing President’s party, CCM, to suspend the recalcitrant opposition MPs from the session who wanted to deliberate the issue of legality of a government decision to suspend almost 8000 students who were studying under a special education programme at Dodoma University.

The civil society organizations have strongly criticized the decision of banning the live coverage of the parliamentary sessions. The Legal and Human Rights Centre’s Director, Helen Kijo Bisimba, in a recent interview said that the decision of banning the live coverage on TV and radio is tantamount to denying the Tanzanians the right to hear, see and monitor how their elected representatives in the Parliament are looking after their concerns and issues.

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A recent opinion poll conducted by one of Tanzania’s well known NGOs, Twaweza also shows that almost 80% of Tanzanians strongly oppose the decision by the government to ban live coverage via TV and radio. 42% of the respondents said that they had watched live transmission of the parliamentary session, while 60% said that they had listened through radio. Around 88% of the citizens proposed the government to allow live broadcast of parliamentary sessions irrespective to costs.

All in all, the ban on the live broadcast of parliamentary session seems to be seriously hindering peoples’ rights to access to information.

Opposition political parties are also facing restrictions. On 7th June the police imposed a blanket ban on all political rallies for an unlimited period after clashing with demonstrators protesting against ‘undemocratic actions’ of the government of President Magufuli.

On 12th June the main opposition party, Chadema’s Chairman Freeman Mbowe and four other party officials were held in Mwanza for questioning though later released without charges. On the same day police barred another opposition party ACT-Wazalendo from holding a public forum to discuss the budget tabled in Parliament.

Opposition political parties are now asking why the Head of the state is silent about continued police harassment of opposition leaders and crackdown on their meetings and other democratic activities countrywide.

ACT-Wazalendo party leader, Zitto Kabwe declared in a news conference that Magufuli is sowing the seeds of a dictatorship and as opposition they will not accept it. To him if the situation was not immediately addressed it would alienate the electorate and would eventually taint President Magufuli’s image as man of the people committed to bringing about true change in the country.

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In terms of political leadership of a state, apparently, the distinction between an effective reformist/change-maker and a dictator could be rather thin.

The line of distinction of course, depends on the kind of reforms that are in question. While rapid reforms seemingly, require quick and decisive actions that often cannot give proper attention to the popular participation of the decision making process, in dictatorship the institutions for popular participations are altogether missing.

So, it is important to make sure that in the name of reform and change, the political institutions and the procedures that are safeguarding popular participation and democracy, are not damaged or weakened. Otherwise, a reformer can easily be transformed into a dictator.