Dr John Pombe Magufuli was sworn in on Thursday as Tanzania’s fifth amidst applause from his supporters and withf a number of African leaders in attendance.
But many regional policy and economic experts watched the fanfare with skepticism, wondering about the fate of the country, especially regarding its place in the East African Community (EAC).
The former high school chemistry and mathematics teacher joined politics in 1995 and served in the Cabinet in various ministries, most recently as the Minister of Public Works from 2010. While in the Cabinet, he was nicknamed “tinga tinga” (bulldozer) by outgoing president Jakaya Kikwete for his relentless efforts in building road networks across the country.
Many people considered Mr Magufuli’s nomination and ascendancy to the top surprising after he was selected Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s (CCM) presidential candidate on July 12.
Indeed, many Tanzanians had hoped that former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa would be the preferred candidate, but CCM’s Central Committee removed him from its list of presidential aspirants, the culmination of a dicey relationship between the man and the party that has ruled Tanzania since independence.
Mr Lowassa eventually ran for the presidency on an opposition party ticket and got 40 per cent of the vote, losing to Mr Magufuli, who got 58 per cent.
Millions of expectant eyes are now fixed on President Magufuli, not just in Tanzania, but also without, especially within the EAC.
During his address to the Kenyan Parliament while on a visit to the country last month, Mr Kikwete stressed his country’s commitment to regional integration and the EAC’s various economic and political programmes.
“We have always remained believers in African unity and East African economic and political integration. We hold a strong belief that a divided East Africa will not be able to claim its rightful place and compete effectively in the regional and global market place, therefore Tanzania’s commitment to EAC integration is unwavering,” he said.
Many who watched the address applauded the outgoing his eloquence, but few reached for their wallets.
Tanzania’s actions towards the EAC in the past several years seem to be sending a different message. For instance, Although the EAC headquarters is in Arusha and Mr Kikwete is the sitting chairman, Tanzania’s attitude towards the bloc has been described as largely “passive” and “disinterested.”
The most memorable episode was in 2013, when President Kikwete was conspicuously absent during the opening of a new berth at the port of Mombasa. What could have been excused as an isolated episode raised eyebrows when a consistent pattern of absenteeism at EAC functions emerged.
Murmurs that the country was being edged out (or willingly keeping off) of the EAC quickly became the subject of media editorial content and debates among policy analysts across the region.
Mr Magufuli takes over at a time when both the region and many Tanzanians seems weary of CCM’s rule and the unbridled corruption.
Will he be the man to change this trajectory? If the unenthusiastic response from the region after he was declared winner last week is anything to go by, this seems doubtful. Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda have been awfully quiet about Magufuli’s win, which raises questions about what this means for Tanzania’s relationship with the rest of EAC.
Mr Peter Kagwanja, head of the Africa Policy Institute, predicts that Tanzania’s relationship with the rest of the region can only become more strained.
“It is evident from as early as his nomination that President Magufuli did not receive support from regional leaders. Furthermore, he is coming into power under a party that is notorious for corruption,” he told DN2.
Even though he boasts a squeaky-clean record, President Magufuli has to bear the burden of a party that seems to be reeling from the vice.
Mr Kagwanja adds that President Magufuli is taking over at a time when the country is suffering from both a democratic and an economic deficit.
“In terms of democracy,” he offers, “the election results were contested by the opposition. This means that the new president stands accused, rightly or wrongly, of stealing power.”
And economically, Tanzania is living in an “ideological dream-world”.
Mr Kagwanja says that while Tanzania’s economic ideals are more appealing to the Southern Africa trade block, their implementation is almost impossible, given the geographical location of those countries.
“Are they going to build a standard gauge railway that goes all the way down to those countries in the south? Highly unlikely,” he says.
President Magufuli is not entirely, if at all, to blame for the gloom being predicted in Tanzania’s relationship with the EAC.
If his track record is anything to go by, people should be predicting giant strides in economic development. But one man’s resumé might not be impressive enough to change the negative attitude that many have towards CCM.
His could easily be described asa case of having the right president in the wrong party. In fact, some in the country even suggest that he is more popular than his party.
But separating the person from the party might also be difficult when one looks at President Magufuli’s list of friends in the region.
Throughout the campaign period and in the past several years, he has received overwhelming support from Kenyan Opposition leader Raila Odinga. Indeed, it is no secret that they are friends; the Tanzanian leader attended the funeral of Mr Odinga’s son, Fidel, in January this year, and was also among those invited to the ODM National Delegates’ Conference in December 2012. Mr Odinga was also among the few leaders who congratulated President Magufuli after he was declared winner last week.
Others who sent congratulatory messages were South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki Moon.
President Magufuli’s pro-active approach to development matters might be good for Tanzania’s place at the EA table. He has a reputation as a hardworking and no-nonsense “ethical” leader.
But it remains to be seen whether his cordial relationship with Kenya’s Opposition will present a conflict of interest, and possibly, further sour an already strained relationship in the bloc.
In his address to Kenyan parliamentarians last month, Mr Kikwete highlighted the fact that trade between Tanzania and Kenya had increased by 40 per cent in the last five years, and that Tanzania is Kenya’s top African investment destination.
His bait, which many seem to have a hard time taking, was that Tanzania views Kenya as a strategic partner rather than a competitor.
Mr Bobi Odiko, the spokesperson for the East Africa Legislative Assembly (EALA), sees President Magufuli as the key to strengthening ties between the two countries.
“Even from his campaigns,” he told DN2, “Dr Magufuli made it clear that EAC integration is among his top priorities. His experience in the public works sector will definitely influence his contribution to regional infrastructural development programmes.”
Dr Kagwanja disagrees, insisting that it is all a political gimmick, and that Tanzania has no plans to change its attitude towards the EAC.
“Magufuli is just a puppet whose strings are held by Kikwete. In fact, the Opposition’s peaceful protest against the results has only made the new president and CCM look bad to the rest of the region.”
He adds that Mr Kikwete’s public friendship with Cord co-principal Kalonzo Musyoka and Magufuli’s cordiality towards Raila Odinga reveal a consistent political pattern that goes beyond private amity.
Personal issues aside, Magufuli has taken over a country that is seemingly indispensable to the economic success of the EAC. For instance, Tanzania covers nearly a million square kilometres, accounting for 51 per cent of the EAC’s total land area. The country also has the greatest proportion of arable but unused land in the region (an estimated 380,000 square kilometres).
With the region’s population expected to almost double from the current 150 million by 2030, such land is bound to come in handy for economic and social projects
Besides, a third of the region’s 150 million people lives in Tanzania, which makes the country a key consumer of goods produced in the region.
The water situation in Kenya compared to the rest of the region also makes it necessary to maintain a working relationship with Tanzania because the country seems better insulated from the pressures of water scarcity, compared its EA neighbours.
Tanzania has the greatest land area under natural forest (352,000 square kilometres) and woodland, compared with just 16,000 square kilometres in Kenya and a mere 6,000 square kilometres in Uganda.
Clearly, whether or not the new leader repairs the strained relationship between his country and EAC states, they have every reason to maintain cordial relations with Tanzania.