Richard Dowden’s Africa blog: Tanzania Elections 2010

Saturday, 29 May 2010
Richard Dowden

A dangerous bubble - Richard Dowden takes the temperature of Tanzanian democracy and discovers a land of two halves.

When our ancestors first looked out across Tanzania’s plains from Olduvai Gorge they must have thought: “This place has got potential”. People have been saying that about Tanzania ever since. But somehow it never seems to fulfil that potential. Despite being well-endowed with raw materials and fertile soils, East Africa’s largest and most populous country conveys images of poverty and tourism.

Why? It has never suffered from the political diseases such as ethnic divisions or military coups that seemed to bedevil most of Africa in the first 50 years of independence. With the possible exception of Botswana, Tanzania has had the quietest politics of any Sub-Saharan country. Led for a quarter of a century by the saintly socialist, Julius Nyerere, Tanzania became an economic wasteland but stayed stable. Tanzanians seem imbued with a sense of civic pride and orderliness that seem lacking among its neighbours. But aid-dependent and ruled by a conservative elite with a growing reputation for state-sanctioned corruption, it has persistently fallen short of its potential, its economy sluggish, its politics restrictive, its energies repressed.  

This may be changing and the election on October 31st the fundamental turning point. With a growth rate of around 7% in the last few years, the discovery of substantial deposits of offshore gas, new investments have poured into agriculture and tourism. But, more importantly, a new generation of Tanzanians is emerging, very different to previous ones. 

On a visit earlier this year I felt there were now two Tanzanias. Inside the bubble are the suited ruling elite, diplomats and aid workers, tourists and business professionals. They move from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned 4X4, to air conditioned office. Many live in magnificent air-conditioned hotels. In Dar es Salaam, the capital, you could be anywhere in the rich world and you might believe that Tanzania had finally taken off. 

But step out of that bubble, walk the streets of Dar and it feels different. Today’s city was built by the Germans a hundred years ago and laid out for pedestrians. The streets are mostly two lane, the pavements wide and planted with shady trees. But the pavements have mostly disappeared. They have become parking spaces for the 4X4 tribe. The bubble has taken over the streets, forcing the people to walk in the road: nasty and dangerous. And the wealth bubble has left rural areas virtually untouched. According to Tanzania’s own Bureau of statistics there was minimal reduction in the numbers of rural poor people. Between 1991 and 2007 it drops a mere 3.2%. Over the same period the number of poor Tanzanians has grown from 11.6 million to 12.9 million.  

I noticed that most of the walkers were young and purposeful, dressing as well as they could in cheap, ill-fitting clothes. Many wore ties. Every time a 4X4 hits a pothole they leap away to avoid being splashed with mud. They may have poorly paid jobs or none at all but they clearly have self-respect and aspiration. And there are a lot of them. Kept out of the bubble by a thin membrane of glass or plastic, they can see clearly what lies on the other side. When they realise that they may never be allowed in, what sort of future will they demand of the political leaders?           

There was never any question that President Jakaya Kikwete would win the presidential election on Sunday. The big question was always by how much. This is the fourth election since Tanzania became a multi party democracy in 1992 but Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the party that led Tanzania to independence, has ruled ever since. It has always maintained a total grip on power on the mainland, though a strong opposition exists on Zanzibar and the islands. In 2000 President Ben Mkapa won 72% of the vote and this rose to 80% under Kikwete’s candidacy in 2005. If the president’s rating now falls below 70% and the opposition increase their seats in parliament, Kikwete could face a tough five years. 

But is he listening? Leading a country that needs a lot of fixing, Kikwete seems to spend most of his time in another bubble, the plane, travelling constantly throughout the world, particularly to the USA. An early question in the new parliament may well be how much time does the President actually spend in Tanzania? One diplomat suggested that he stays out of the country because he is not powerful enough within the ruling party to deal with corruption among its leading members.

And in this election there is a real opposition with a strong new party and young members within the ruling party willing to challenge their elders. In the past opposition parties have been regional. The largest until recently was the Zanzibar-based Civic United Front. But a new party, Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Party for Democracy and Progress), led by Wilbrord Slaa, has become truly national and attracts youthful support. A low key but well-focussed man, Slaa’s criticism of the government is polite but precise. He focuses on the failure of the local ruling party MPs to deliver to the people while running businesses and growing rich through their political connections. “We regard it as a syndicate” he told me, “a few people getting rich, our resources plundered.”

The ruling party is also the government, the administration and the law so it is exceedingly hard for opposition movements to gain ground. At elections the ruling party deploys the entire apparatus of the state against its opponents. When electioneering began to heat up, the police chief warned opposition parties but not the ruling party, to obey the law. The press has opened up in recent years and is staffed increasingly by bright young Tanzanians who are prepared to push the boundaries of press freedom. This worries the government. In the lead-up to the election the government threatened to close down newspapers and radio stations that criticised it or exposed corruption in government. These were not vague public threats.    

The main target of the press and the opposition campaign has been corruption. In Tanzania it is both grand and local. Representatives of companies wishing to do business there search for senior officials who will guide them through the system without having to pay bribes. At least some of the past crimes have been exposed. In 2005 BAE sold Tanzania a sophisticated air traffic control system in a corrupt deal that was backed by Tony Blair. Then there is the Richmond affair where millions of dollars were paid into a ghost company controlled by leading ministers. In both cases senior government officials and ministers were sacked but no one has been prosecuted. At a local level registering land ownership invariably involves a bribe if you want the certificate in less than a year, sometimes longer. Since agriculture is seen as a major driver of wealth in the future, this seriously hampers the country’s development. 

Kikwete has a simple choice. He either uses his presidential power to suppress criticism and the opposition or he uses it to curb corruption in his own government and party. If he does the later, Tanzania’s reputation will be restored. If he does the former, Tanzania will follow the disastrous route many other African countries have gone down. That would be a pity at a time when the rest of the continent seems to be turning itself around.