Sunday, November 5, 2017

How bad is President Magufuli's Populism?

How Bad is President Magufuli's Populism?

Dastan  Kweka

Many journalists and analysts have ascribed a populism label to President Magufuli's actions - or inactions, over the last two years. However, few have bothered to define the concept, and often, commentators have written from a negative point of view. But, is populism always bad?

Nic Cheeseman is notable for having written a thought-provoking piece about Magufuli's populism, in which he alluded to his conception of the term. He writes:

“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.”

The author writes elsewhere in the same piece that, “The main problem with populism is that the early gains secured by leaders like Magufuli are rarely sustained.”
So, according to Cheeseman, failure or unwillingness to follow due process is a character of populist leaders. It is a view shared by Francis Fukuyama, who suggests that there are 3 main factors associated with the term i.e. (a) selection of policies that are popular in the short term but not sustainable in the long run, (b) a discourse that defines people/citizens in a restrictive way, for instance, on the basis of ethnic affiliation, and, (c) a focus on building a cult of personality. Moreover, Fukuyama anchors his analysis on the character or behavior considered to be normal to a 'modern state' (possibly as opposed to 'primordial' state). He (Fukuyama) argues that the modern state is, in treatment of its citizens, expected to uphold rule of law as well as democratic accountability.

Cas Mudde defines populism “as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups” – “the pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Unlike Cheeseman, whose article gives an impression that populism is totally bad, Mudde points to its positive side, which is the idea that it brings to the limelight issues that matter to the majority, but that may not necessarily please the elite. And that its downside is that, it “is a monist and moralist ideology” that “rejects the legitimacy of political opponents.”
So, how bad is President Magufuli`s populism? The clue may lie in the actions he has taken, and examples that his critics have singled out. This takes me back to Cheeseman's article. He writes that;

“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.”

It is important to remember that President Magufuli came to power when actions against the corrupt or irresponsible were rare, and when they happened, an exception. Therefore, “institutional rules for reviewing performance and removing staff” were in place, but their application was lax. For instance, instead of being fired for having committed a gross misconduct, an official would be re-assigned. Restoration of (institutional) discipline was key and a signal that the times have changed, had to come from the very top. 

Unfortunately, this has had to happen across the entire government. In addition, these actions have not culminated into replacement of regular procedures. Isn't a temporary 'outside'  intervention justified? What the sackings do is that they raise the cost of complacency – which is something needed to compel office holders to take action or be shown the door.
How about restrictions on political activity? Restriction, and harassment, does not seem to originate from (outright) rejection of opposition's legitimacy. Instead, it stems from a sense of political vulnerability, embodied in a relatively narrow victory that brought him to power. On this aspect, rules have (continuously) been ignored, since at least Mkapa's era. A question remains whether treatment will be different after 2020, if he will be serving his final term. Moreover, a sense of dissatisfaction, which has been attributed to the austerity policy, may be an equalizer. An upcoming by-election offers an opportunity to check the extent to which complaints over difficult living conditions may have undercut the President's popularity.
Reforms in extractive industries show a clear focus on strengthening the enforcement of existing rules and formulation of new ones. The recent appointment of Professor Luoga – a seasoned tax expert – as the next Governor of the Bank of Tanzania (BOT) also points in the same direction. It remains to be seen whether the involvement of the Presidency will decline, once a settlement has been achieved.

The ability of the current regime to sustain 'popular' policies such as tuition-free education and large investment in infrastructure will depend on the nature of the financing (debt or internal sources) and overall performance of the economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) rates the risk of 'debt distress' for Tanzania as low.

Although elites have been bruised by a crackdown on corruption and inefficiency, the 'masses' have not always had a good day. For instance, while unplanned settlements were demolished in Dar es Salaam, the President urged a 'human face' in Mwanza, because they voted for him. Many will recall controversial government response to the earthquake in Kagera, especially the decision to bar direct support to (poor) victims, and rerouting donations to rehabilitate government institutions. Some analysts have even wondered whether this is, really, a regime that cares about the poor. 
The few examples above show that Magufuli's populism isn't a typical case of pure masses, against the corrupt elite, or a total focus on ignoring rules, and pursuing unsustainable policies. He has worked to address institutional weaknesses, in some sections, while taking advantage of systemic (read constitutional) gaps that allow him to consolidate power. His approach is characterized by many contradictions and, informed by diverse incentives. This understanding may help explain why “criticisms do not seem to have much effect on the citizenry who continue to support and defend” him. Many still believe that he means well for the country. May it be the case.


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