Tanzanian main opposition chief Tundu Lissu gestures from his wheelchair TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Tanzania’s Illiberal Tilt

Immediately after his 2015 election, Tanzanian President John Magufuli appeared poised to lead one of Africa’s most stable democracies to a bright future. Instead, he has launched an intensifying campaign of repression against journalists, human rights activists, and civil-society organizations.

JOHANNESBURG – During a recent phone call with a Tanzanian journalist and human rights activist whom I know well, many of my questions were met with uncharacteristic silence. My friend is bold, plucky, and usually talkative. But on this occasion, politics was too dangerous for her to discuss. With Tanzania’s journalists being threatened, assaulted, and kidnapped, our conversation remained confined to the mundane.

Tanzania, one of Africa’s most stable democracies is sliding toward authoritarianism. For months, President John Magufuli has been targeting his political opponents, attacking journalists, and closing news outlets. While his moves have drawn international criticism, Magufuli continues his assault on free speech and political rights. Tanzanians are being silenced like never before, and the world should be very worried.

Until recently, Tanzanians believed their country was headed in the opposite direction. After taking office in late 2015, Magufuli introduced a reform-oriented agenda that earned him high praise. Among his initiatives was a campaign to redirect public spending to fight cholera, and a payroll audit to identify “ghost workers” – non-existent government employees who drain some $2 million from the budget every month. The private sector was not spared with mining companies being accused of under paying their taxes. In fact, Magufuli’s anti-corruption efforts were so popular that many Tanzanians viewed their president as the epitome of morality; on social media, the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo went viral.