What you need to know:
The problem with populism is that leaders rarely follow due process.
Instead, they build reputations that are explicitly based on their willingness to break down institutional barriers in order to achieve their goals.
Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has begun his time in office with a set of high profile policies and a blaze of publicity. The regional and international media has revelled in images of Magufuli sweeping the streets and disciplining civil servants, praising his efforts to reform a political system that has failed to meet citizens’ needs for many years.
However, in the shadows of these laudable activities the president has demonstrated a worrying authoritarian inclination to repress dissent and reject institutional checks and balances.
It is therefore important to deconstruct Tanzania’s “Magufuli miracle”, and to reflect more critically on the capacity of populist presidents to promote development and democracy in Africa. If history is any guide, the overwhelming popularity that Magufuli enjoys today is unlikely to last.
From the start, Magufuli has positioned himself as a dynamic populist. Positioning himself as an anti-elite figure on the side of the ordinary people, he moved to slash government waste, cutting foreign travel and diverting money from the inauguration ceremony for MPs to pay for hospital beds. At the same time, he announced a war on corruption, promised a crackdown on big businessmen and tax avoiders, and fired a number of civil servants said to be underperforming in one way or another. Many of these policies have improved the quality of life for ordinary Tanzanians in demonstrable ways. A directive to the state-owned energy company to reduce fees and tariffs, for example, has put money back into citizens’ pockets.
We shouldn’t overlook these achievements. Under previous administrations, corruption was so pervasive it undermined the provision of basic public services. Moreover, it had become clear the ruling party was not capable of reforming itself. As Hazel Gray argued in a recent article in African Affairs, the divisions within Chama Cha Mapinduzi, and the inability of any one faction or leader to exert effective central control, undermined the capacity of the government to get a grip on spoils politics.
President Magufuli’s rise to power promises to change this picture, in part because of his willingness to lead by example, and in part because of his determination to get the job done by operating outside of official structures. It is therefore unsurprising Magufuli’s approval ratings are the envy of presidents around the world — 96 per cent according to a mobile phone survey of 1,813 respondents conducted in June this year. These figures may be inflated — the methodology of the survey was controversial — but they reflect the public’s belief that the president is doing a good job.
In large part, this seems to be driven by the fact that ordinary citizens feel that a number of key institutions are performing better under the new government. The vast majority of citizens (85 per cent) say the performance of the Tax Revenue Authority has improved, with similar results for schools (75 per cent), police stations (74 per cent), the courts (73 per cent), healthcare (72 per cent) and water access (67 per cent). Perhaps most tellingly, almost all of those surveyed (95 per cent) agreed that government officials and employees had become more accountable and responsive.
In this sense Magufuli has not just delivered a significant blow to the prevailing culture of corruption, he has also started to rebuild public confidence in the capacity of the state to deliver, which is a critical first step to building a more effective social contract.
The main problem with populism is that the early gains secured by leaders like Magufuli are rarely sustained.
In the African context, populists often begin with a burst of energy, attacking corruption and promising political (and often constitutional) reform. The response from both domestic and international audiences is typically high praise, which serves to both consolidate the position of the leader and embolden them. But this often results in populists overreaching, attempting to deliver impossible gains in part because they have started to believe their own political theatre.
Where this occurs, the final act of a populist’s career is often characterised by a desperate attempt to complete what they started amidst falling support, culminating in a very public, and often dramatic, fall from grace.
This process can have negative consequences for both democracy and development. As I was recently reminded by Nicolas van de Walle, the John S Knight Professor of International Studies at Cornell University, in a democracy it is not enough for the outcome to be fair, the process needs to be fair also. When it comes to democracy, a fair process is often understood to include open elections, inclusive governance, and respect for the rule of law.
The problem with populism is that leaders rarely follow due process. Instead, they build reputations that are explicitly based on their willingness to break down institutional barriers in order to achieve their goals. Magufuli’s approach exemplifies this tendency. His nickname, the “Bulldozer”, plays on exactly this claim to fame: It was earned when he was responsible for driving a project to build roads across the country but now refers just as much to his reputation as a leader who, when he faces obstacles, smashes his way through them.
In other words, populist government is usually a “you need to break eggs to make an omelette” kind of politics. The problem is that it is rarely just one or two eggs that get broken. It is hard to see this at the start of a populist’s time in office, because the known failings of previous governments, and the popularity of their actions, mask the limitation of their strategies. But in time the refusal to follow or strengthen official rules hollows out institutions, weakening the system of checks and balances and so leaving the political system more open to abuse. This is what happened in Zambia, where President Michael Sata’s idiosyncratic populism put in power a party that has weakened the electoral commission, harassed the opposition, and failed to reduce corruption.
Magufuli is following a similar path. Many of his most celebrated acts, such as dismissing corrupt or ineffective government employees, did not follow due process. Instead, institutional rules for reviewing performance and removing staff were ignored in favour of presidential directives. Similarly, many of his most eye-catching reforms were announced with little or no prior discussion with his own party. Thus, like Sata, they are only likely to last while the president remains in office and retains his high popularity.
Significantly, the new Tanzanian president has demonstrated some worrying authoritarian tendencies. The first evidence of this was his willingness to endorse the decision to annul the elections for the Zanzibari President and House of Representatives, which the government is widely assumed to have lost. Although the initial decision was made before he took office, Magufuli’s decision to uphold it, and to push ahead with new polls in the face of an opposition boycott, drew criticism from both rival political leaders and the international community.
Despite this, some commentators were tempted to dismiss Magufuli’s actions this on the basis that the politics of Zanzibar are distinctive and elections on the island have often been deeply problematic. When viewed in this light, it was possible to excuse Magufuli on the basis that he was only doing what his predecessors had done before, and that had only just taken office and could not be expected to resolve an intractable problem like Zanzibar in his first year in office.
However, developments on the mainland have followed in a similar vein. Opposition rallies have been prohibited, protestors have been tear gassed, FM radio stations have been closed, and both civil society groups and media outlets have complained about government censorship harassment. Although Magufuli subsequently qualified the ban on opposition rallies following domestic and international pressure, allowing MPs to hold events in their own constituencies, it is clear that the president is no democrat.
One possible response to this point – and a response that I have received a number of times during discussions of this issue over social media – is to argue that in some cases it is worth sacrificing democracy for development. After all, is it not better that women can access maternal care under a leader who does not play by the rules of the game than to go without under a committed democrat? But in reality this is a false trade off, because in the long-run efforts to promote development and to fight corruption will not be successful unless they strengthen the institutions of the state.
Stopping corruption by sacking officials in an ad hoc manner and making decisions on the spur of the moment may look dynamic and effective, but in reality it exacerbates the problem. At root, corruption occurs because institutional checks and balances are not sufficient to prevent individuals from abusing their positions. Dealing with this by further undermining official processes ignores the heart of the problem and actually leaves institutions more, not less, vulnerable to manipulation.
Again, the experience of Sata is instructive. Many of the studies that have been conducted of his time in public office, whether at the Ministry of Health or the Presidency, have concluded that although Sata did not steal much himself, the way in which he broke down institutional checks and balances facilitated corruption by others. In this way, populist anti-corruption measures served to facilitate looting.
This, ultimately, is the true tragedy of populism in Africa. Although populist leaders often start well, they rarely sustain either democracy or development.
Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at the University of Oxford in the UK. Twitter: @fromagehomme.