Since then, a more troubling pattern has set in: In its three and a half years in power, Magufuli’s government has jailed rival politicians, pop stars, and journalists; prevented teenage mothers from returning to school; and threatened mass arrests of LGBTQ Tanzanians. New regulations severely restrict social-media critics and criminalize the publication of data not endorsed by the government. Tundu Lissu, an outspoken opposition member of Parliament, barely survived an attempted assassination in 2017, and last October, Mohammed Dewji, Tanzania’s only billionaire, was kidnapped for 10 days. Mdude Nyagali, a young opposition activist, was abducted by gunmen on May 4; he was discovered last week dumped in a bush and showing signs of torture. Critics say that none of these acts have been thoroughly investigated by the authorities.
Now Tanzania’s 60 million people are beginning to realize that the honeymoon period is over, and that their country is more and more being governed by repression.
“There’s been a big shift to a much more constricted, constrained environment,” Aidan Eyakuze, Twaweza’s executive director, told me. “People are scared to say what they used to be able to say.” Eyakuze’s own passport was seized by the authorities after his organization reported last July that support for the president had plummeted to 55 percent.
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In some ways, the 59-year-old Magufuli is hardly an anomaly in a region dominated by strongmen. Though much of sub-Saharan Africa saw sweeping democratic gains after the Cold War, political and civil rights have remained stagnant in West Africa, declined moderately in southern Africa, and fallen precipitously in the East and Central subregions since the mid-2000s, according to the think tank Freedom House. While new leaders in Ethiopia and Angola have made notable recent strides toward openness, democracy in Tanzania’s neighborhood is hardly robust. Leaders of three of its immediate neighbors—Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi—have clung to power beyond their original legal mandates and preside over some of the world’s worst human-rights records. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, former President Joseph Kabila has positioned himself to rule by proxy in retirement. Although Kenya, East Africa’s economic powerhouse, has avoided the “presidents for life” syndrome, its elections are regularly disputed.
Tanzania long stood out as an exception. A single party, known today as Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has ruled the country since Tanzania’s 1964 creation as a merger between the former British colony of Tanganyika and the British protectorate of Zanzibar. But Tanzania’s leaders have respected term limits, and tolerated a vibrant opposition since the adoption of a multiparty system in 1992. The country has never experienced major civil conflict. Many credit Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, with forging a strong sense of national identity, which minimized the ethnic divisions that continue to plague many countries in the region.