Something is cooking in Tanzania, and the aroma smells like progress

Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • The quick dismantling of civil liberties under President Magufuli is a reminder of how precarious institutions can be in the face of strong men.

I had not realised how far back my last visit to Tanzania was until I landed at Julius Nyerere International Airport last month. The immigration officers were still unmissable and unmistakable in their blue uniforms, but they were now operating out of a new airport terminal building.

Former President Jakaya Kikwete laid the foundation stone to start the new terminal project in 2014. Then the project got caught up in the weeds amidst allegations of inflated prices and corruption. When President John Pombe Magufuli took over in November 2015 he, in typical fashion, set the house on fire, kicked some bottoms, raised money locally and launched the new terminal in 2019.

President Magufuli, who died of covid-related complications in March 2021 at the start of his second term in office, was enigmatic in life and remains so even in death. He was a dark horse choice by the ruling CCM party to replace President Kikwete. Former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, who believed the ‘thing’ was his by rights, threw his toys out of the pram and joined the opposition to fight Magufuli in the election proper, only to be upset by the CCM machinery.

Magufuli’s crackdown on what he saw as the political-economic establishment was brutal and violent. Opponents and rivals were arrested, disappeared or worse. Businesses were shaken down to pay more in taxes and royalties. Our journalist colleague Azory Gwanda is still missing after he disappeared from his home in 2017 while investigating murders allegedly committed by the police.

Around the same time, opposition politician Tindu Lissu was shot 16 times. He miraculously survived and made a full recovery in exile. But this reign of terror was the reason many journalists, your columnist included, gave the country a wide berth under Magufuli.
Maybe our Tanzanian brothers and sisters needed a bit of a shaking up to move a bit faster, but nothing can justify the terrifying violence of President Magufuli’s shock therapy. Nothing illustrates this better than the quiet and unassuming manner in which President Samia Suluhu Hassan has kept the reform agenda going without having to break kneecaps.

Dar es Salaam’s notorious traffic jams are being eased by a new rapid bus transit service that crisscrosses the city. Look carefully up above and you can see the concrete columns supporting the new electrified standard-gauge railway line. The first phase is the 300-kilometre run to Morogoro, which is now being tested. Work is underway on other phases to the capital, Dodoma, north to Mwanza, and then to Rwanda and Burundi with a possible spur to Uganda. If it gets to DR Congo first Kenya might have to kiss goodbye to its own SGR currently marooned somewhere west of Nairobi.  

When construction is completed, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which runs from western Uganda through northern Tanzania to Tanga Port on the Indian Ocean, will make our southern neighbour the infrastructure gearbox of the region. Not bad for a country that, only a few years ago, was seen as the team leader of the Coalition of the Unwilling.
All of it is going on quietly without drama, without the breakage of bones, and without blackmailing or threatening those with alternative views. Tanzania has understood its interests and is going about articulating them very intentionally.

Even journalists can now raise their heads above the parapet. Our hosts, the Tanzania Editors Forum, bused us down to Lindi, 450 kilometres south of Dar es Salaam. It was a chance to see how vast the country is – almost four times the size of Uganda – down long stretches of uninhabited land.

Lindi is a small sleepy town but it will not be for long, thanks to deep-water gas deposits off the coast of the Indian Ocean worth billions of dollars. On the narrow road, we squeezed past large trucks emblazoned ‘Dangote Cement’ and others belonging to the large graphite mines in the area.

Natural resources do not necessarily translate into prosperity for all; ask Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea or any number of oil-rich, dirt-poor countries on the continent and beyond. The quick dismantling of civil liberties under President Magufuli is a reminder of how precarious institutions can be in the face of strong men.

But something is cooking in Tanzania and the aroma wafting in from the kitchen smells like progress

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki