What is behind Tanzania’s authoritarian turn?

It is not a unique phenomenon, but an Africa-wide trend.

Tanzania's re-elected President John Pombe Magufuli takes the oath of office during his swearing-in ceremony for the second term at the Jamhuri Stadium in Dodoma, Tanzania on November 5, 2020 [Reuters/Handout]

The recent re-election of John Magufuli, president of Tanzania, by a landslide, whether achieved by fair or foul means, has increased fears about the re-emergence or perhaps consolidation of authoritarianism in Africa. Although some have praised Magufuli’s leadership in the past five years, others have condemned it, especially its human rights track record and crackdown on the opposition.

When talking about authoritarianism in Tanzania, however, it is important to pay attention to the political and socioeconomic dynamics at play. I argue that what is happening in the country is not unique to it, but instead is part of a continent-wide trend.

At independence, most African governments inherited states that were more or less large empty spaces, of course with variation across the continent. Population densities, in Africa, were among the lowest in the world. Many African states had few concentrated urban centres, and the vast majority of Africans in the middle of the 20th century lived in small settlements in so-called hinterlands.

Threats to the power of the newly independent governments primarily arose from fellow government members and the military, or the urban population. Maintaining control, therefore, involved a number of strategies.

First, African leaders had to undertake coup proofing: in most cases, this meant buying off opponents by distributing high-level jobs in the government, state enterprises, and parastatals and setting up preferential economic regulation that created and gave licences to cronies. In the army, vital positions were often reserved for individuals with special ethnic or religious loyalties to the leadership.

Second, there had to be a degree of responsiveness to the urban population, primarily through subsidies of basic urban necessities, such as staple foods, fuel, utilities and housing.

Third, it was necessary to cut off or at least retard the connection between rural areas and urban areas. This was achieved mainly by not extending the road network or electricity infrastructure to rural areas.

Fourth, pan-Africanism, communism and African socialism provided the ideological glue to hold together the otherwise legalistic and administrative states bequeathed by colonialism.

Such strategies worked well for a while because of generally small populations and even smaller urban populations. But over the past few decades, the situation has changed, driven by a few important trends.

Since 2000, the populations of many African states have doubled, with people under the age of 30 remaining a majority. Many of these states have witnessed accelerated urbanisation and the urban population increasing exponentially. For example, the population of Tanzania was over 30 million in 2000; by 2020, it became close to 60 million. The number of urban dwellers has almost tripled from 7 million to 20 million.

Urbanisation, however, has not necessarily led to poverty alleviation. Although poverty rates in Africa appear to have witnessed a small decline from 54 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2015, the number of poor people has increased from 278 million in 1990 to 413 million in 2015.

The more sophisticated Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2020 report shows that in sub-Saharan Africa, 71.9 percent of people in rural areas (466 million people) and 25.2 percent (92 million people) in urban areas are multidimensionally poor. In Tanzania, close to half of the population lives on $1.90 or less per day (in 2011 purchasing power parity), despite the growth rate of gross domestic product remaining consistently above 4 percent since 2000.

This has much to do with the World Bank and the International Monitory Fund’s structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), which many African countries have had to accept in order to access international loans. The provisions of these SAPs aim to dismantle state policies that are invaluable tools for social and economic control; these include complex economic regulation, state-owned enterprises, state subsidies and the inflated state payroll.

As a result, African states have more people living in poverty in urban areas to pacify with fewer tools to do so.

Despite the major challenges, African states have not been prone to collapse (i.e. fully disappearing from the world map). Unlike countries such as Yugoslavia, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, African states, however weak, have persisted. The Soviet Union may have been a stronger state than Nigeria, but Nigeria is still here, and the Soviet Union is not.

If state collapse is not an option, then African countries have only three others left. The first option is to embrace the free market, the rule of law and democracy and seek to reduce poverty through job creation and social welfare. This has been the model that the West has been promoting, at least rhetorically, through the Washington consensus. Let us call it neoliberalism.

The second is to seek to reduce poverty through stronger economic and social control, which may include suppression of the political aspirations of the opposition. This option has become all the more attractive with China’s rise on the international scene; its one-party system combined with state capitalism and focus on massive infrastructure development has moved an unprecedented number of people out of poverty in record time. Let us call this model authoritarian developmentalism.

The third option is the failed state. It is a state that exists only on paper and has an official government which lacks internal sovereignty, while authority is distributed among multiple centres – tribal or ethnic-based structures and armed groups. The third option is a default position that a state occupies when all strategies have failed, as in the case of Somalia, the Central African Republic, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (to some extent).

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, African leaders overwhelmingly went for the first option. But neoliberalism did not work out well for most of them, as in many cases it did not significantly reduce poverty through the Washington consensus and did not prevent the apparent decline of democracy in Africa.

As a result, most African leaders are now eyeing the second option, authoritarian developmentalism, which Tanzania’s Magufuli has also clearly gone for. This means that the Tanzanian president’s growing authoritarianism is a phenomenon, not an incident and it has less to do with his personality and more to do with the circumstances that Tanzania and many other African countries find themselves in. There may be variation in how this plays out, but authoritarian developmentalism is on the rise in Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.