A man in Arusha, Tanzania, reads the daily newspaper “The Citizen,” which has a headline referring to the dismissal of the Tanzanian information minister after he criticized an ally of the president. (AFP/Getty Images)

A popular rapper was arrested and then released this weekend in Tanzania for releasing a song that criticized President John P. Magufuli. In the track, rapper Nay wa Mitego asks whether freedom of expression still exists in Tanzania, calls out the double standard in holding public officials accountable, and wonders whether the president considers himself Jesus Christ’s relative.

Although Mitego’s arrest has raised alarms about declining rights and civil liberties in Tanzania, it fits a larger pattern of the president ruling with impunity. After the elections in late 2015, Ruth Carlitz and I warned that Magufuli’s regime leaned toward authoritarianism.

Just last week, the president fired his information minister, Nape Nnauye. The move was in response to Nnauye’s defense of a local media firm, Clouds FM. Clouds FM operates a TV station where the regional commissioner of Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda — accompanied by armed special police and soldiers — demanded they air a segment discrediting a popular local evangelist preacher, Josephat Gwajima.

Why is a public official out to discredit a preacher? Gwajima has accused Makonda of having fake education credentials and abusing his office’s power. Gwajima experienced this abuse of power firsthand, having been accused — and later cleared — of being involved in illicit drug trade.

The president’s prerogative

The preacher has engaged in a sustained fight against Makonda in hopes of having Magufuli fire the overreaching head of Tanzania’s largest city. However, Magufuli seems to have a very close relationship with Makonda, having recently urged Makonda to ignore demands for his removal and to continue with his good work.

Magufuli’s support of Makonda and removal of Nnauye are two sides of the same dictatorial coin. Although Nnauye’s remarks after his removal were sanguine, he was making them just after armed security officers blocked his vehicle and pointed a pistol at him.

Of course, Nnauye is no hero. During the 2015 presidential campaign, it was Nnauye who argued that the ruling party would “score even by hand, as long as it is unseen by the referee,” using a soccer metaphor to say the ruling party would do whatever it takes to win. It was Nnauye who implemented the government’s policy to cease live broadcasting of parliamentary sessions on national television. Nnauye was also the steward of Tanzania’s media services bill, which many have argued restricts the media freedom that Nnauye championed this month and which led to his removal from government.

To be sure, the removal of cabinet ministers is common in Tanzania’s history. Tanzania’s second president, Ali H. Mwinyi, infamously fired his deputy prime minister, Augustine Mrema, on the eve of the country’s first multiparty elections in 1995, because of a disagreement between Mrema and Mwinyi regarding a corruption scandal. (Mrema later won more than a quarter of the votes in his presidential bid with an opposition party.)

Nevertheless, the removal of a cabinet minister, after a public official attempted to coerce a news media outlet through the barrel of a gun to air news to his liking, is unprecedented. Many rightly see this as a problematic development in Tanzanian politics.

Magufuli’s moral crusade

The silencing of critics in Tanzania is occurring amid a moral crusade by Magufuli’s administration. Makonda’s controversial anti-drug campaign that swept up preacher Gwajima is part of this crusade, as is last year’s ban by the government of popular sheesha-smoking and this year’s ban on sales of small sachets of liquor, popularly known as viroba.

There is also a continued campaign against homosexuality. As recently as February, Deputy Minister of Health Hamisi Kigwangalla threatened to publish a list of Tanzanians suspected of being gay.

Taken together, these incidents are consistent with the administration’s crusade to “clean” Tanzania of corruption and immorality.

Like other African countries, Tanzania has experienced a recent surge in evangelical Christianity. University of Pennsylvania political scientist Guy Grossman’s research shows that as the number of evangelical churches increases, so does the salience of LGBT politics. Likewise, University of Washington political scientist Sarah K. Dreier has associated contemporary homophobic policies in Africa to the legacies of missionaries and colonial policies as well as continued economic dependence on foreign aid from former colonial masters.

What does this all mean for Tanzania and the region?

Magufuli’s increasingly authoritarian rule benefits the region’s other strongmen. For example, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently asked his Tanzanian counterparts for relief from a months-long doctors’ strike. The Tanzanian government has obliged by promising to send its neighbor more than 500 doctors, undermining the strike.


World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and Tanzania’s President John Magufuli wave during a ceremony where they laid the foundation stone for Ubungo overpass construction in Dar es Salaam, March 20, 2017. (Emmanuel Herman/Reuters)

Economists are still bullish about Tanzania’s economic prospects, and the World Bank has singled out the country to receive preferential scaled-up resources. Despite this positive economic outlook, however, others have been cautious and warn of investors leaving because of government intrusion in private business affairs.

Tanzanians are the third-unhappiest people in the world, behind Burundi and the Central African Republic — both countries with a history of civil conflict and sustained political and economic instability. This unhappiness may be a harbinger of discontent with the ruling party in the 2020 elections. Although Magufuli was recently reported to have high approval ratings, Africa’s longest-ruling party will have to mitigate Tanzanians’ unhappiness or face being removed from power through an opposition electoral victory.

Constantine Manda is a political science doctoral student at Yale University working on the political economy of development with a regional focus on Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @msisiri.