Critics Of Tanzania's President Say He's Moved Country Toward Authoritarianism John Magufuli is the reformer Tanzania needs — a no-nonsense guy who has reined in corruption and profligate spending. But Tanzania's president also has a dark side. He has silenced his opposition and eroded basic freedoms of speech and of the press.

Critics Of Tanzania's President Say He's Moved Country Toward Authoritarianism

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Tanzania's president, John Magufuli, came into office nicknamed The Bulldozer for his no-holds-barred fight against corruption. His celebrated frugality quickly gave rise to a hashtag - #whatwouldmagufulido. It's used by Tanzanians to praise and to mock his money-saving ways. Well, two years later, critics say that along with his anti-corruption crusade, Magufuli has moved Tanzania toward authoritarianism. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Last year's bridge inauguration begins as a happy affair. President John Magufuli cuts a ribbon and smiles. He then tells the crowd that this beautiful bridge pushed by the previous administration was built through fraud. He asks a close political ally to tell them about it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: The ally details a kickback scheme worth millions, and Magufuli's face changes. The smile morphs into a tense grimace. When he takes the podium, it is anger that rushes out of him.



PERALTA: "What should I do," he says. And the crowd erupts. Fire him.


MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: "There is no room in my administration for officials who feed off the blood of the poor," he says. "Should I lance this boil," he asks. And as the crowd cheers, he fires the official right there in public. No investigation, no looking back.

ABDULKARIM ATIKI: In the statehouse it was a swamp.

PERALTA: That's Abdulkarim Atiki, a political analyst who affectionately calls Magufuli a magician.

ATIKI: A swamp which accumulates some crocodiles, hyenas, lions, man-eaters. All of them that was there eat public money. So when Magufuli came to the statehouse, started to drain the swamp.

PERALTA: In two years, Magufuli has indeed managed to slash government spending, stop millions of dollars from being spent on ghost workers, and instead use that money for public health and infrastructure, which have both seen huge gains. He has also dramatically increased the revenue collected by the government. Today in Tanzania, every store, coffee shop and gas station is outfitted with a digital tax collector. The Dar es Salaam port alone has almost doubled its revenue. Atiki says none of that is easy when you have entrenched interests working against you.

ATIKI: So he has to use some iron fist to make sure that his policy follow his path.

PERALTA: But that iron fist has also manifested itself in different ways. Helen Kijo Bisimba runs the Legal and Human Rights Center. She says even though Tanzania has in essence been ruled by one party since independence, it used to be a country with a vibrant politics, with praise and dissent mingling out in public.

HELEN KIJO BISIMBA: But all that now has changed.

PERALTA: Bisimba's organization has documented the use of an archaic law to arrest opposition lawmakers. Some politicians, journalists and prominent critics have simply gone missing, and others have been shot or been involved in inexplicable car accidents. Two years ago, Bisimba herself was involved in a suspicious car wreck that left her using a cane until this day.

BISIMBA: It is very bad because it's something which you don't expect in this country. We were celebrating 56 years of independence, but I think we've gone so back - so back.

PERALTA: The media, she says, no longer shows up to her press conferences. Parliamentarians avoid criticizing the president. And regular citizens have become so paranoid about spies among them that they just stopped talking politics on the streets, on buses, even on WhatsApp groups because some have gotten heavily fined for criticizing the president on the platform.

BISIMBA: What he has done is that everybody is so fearful. People are so afraid. You are not safe even in the social media.

PERALTA: In Tanzania's biggest city, the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam, it is hard to get people to talk about Magufuli. People look over their shoulders distrustingly, and they effusively praise his excellency. But I do find one spot where people are disarmed. It's dark on Coco Beach. Friends and couples are out for a drink and a bit of barbecue. And these two guys are playing Tanzanian love songs.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in Swahili).

PERALTA: I walk past them and get closer to the shore. The Indian Ocean is as black as the sky above. Thomas asks me to use only his first name because he doesn't know who is who. Business, he says, has collapsed.

THOMAS: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: In the past, he says, politicians and government workers spent the spoils from corruption buying stuff from people like him. Now they're on Magufuli's budget. I tell him, but that's a good thing, right?

THOMAS: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: He says he hopes Magufuli is doing all of this for the future of Tanzania. But right now he feels stifled by the lagging economy and the fact that he can't speak his mind. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.


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