Olivia Bitungwa admires Tanzania’s president John Magufuli so much that she went out and bought a sarong-like kanga imprinted with his face ahead of Wednesday’s general election.

“He’s a good man. Yes, I’ll vote for him,” said the food vendor, 25, citing progress since he became president in 2015, including the building of new roads and bridges. Mr Magufuli was “the heir of Julius Nyerere”, she added, a comparison to Tanzania’s founding father encouraged by the country’s ruling party.

Elected on a promise to tackle corruption and the mismanagement of public funds, Mr Magufuli won early public support for halting salary payments to non-existent “ghost workers” and cancelling a host of dubious government contracts.

A public work programme to construct bridges, highways, railways, ports and airport terminals helped boost the economy and he fulfilled Nyerere’s 1973 pledge to relocate the entire government to the new capital, Dodoma.

But Mr Magufuli also stands accused of running a campaign to crack down on political opponents and critical journalists, and to harass businesses without warning. “We’ve never been in a situation like this before,” said one government critic who was jailed for his writings but has since been released.

A second five-year term as leader of what was once known as east Africa’s most peaceful and stable democracy would extend the rule of Mr Magufuli’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, a version of which has held power since independence in 1961.

In the commercial capital Dar es Salaam this week, flags and election posters in the green and gold colours of the CCM were on show as Mr Magufuli’s face beamed down from billboards. Promotional materials for opposition candidates such as Tundu Lissu from the Chadema party were almost nowhere to be seen. 

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Lucas Banga, who works at the ruling party campaign shop in Dar es Salaam, said President John Magufuli was ‘loved by the whole country’ © Andres Schipani/FT

“Magufuli is popular and is loved by the whole country,” said Lucas Banga, 42, who sells posters, T-shirts and other election paraphernalia at the CCM campaign shop in the centre of Dar es Salaam.

At a nearby outlet selling mobile phone SIM cards, Heavenlight Matee, 35, took a different view, saying she would be “voting for a new president, Tundu, because we need change”.

Mr Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer”, is known for his uncompromising style. In recent months he has baffled aid groups and foreign diplomats with his insistence that Tanzania was completely free from coronavirus.

Instead, the funerals for those who succumbed to the virus were often carried out at night to avoid attracting attention, diplomats say. “With a lockdown he would have faced social unrest. They could not risk that in an electoral year,” said a local businessman.

A top government official described Mr Magufuli as “a no-nonsense man”. Hassan Abbasi, the chief government spokesperson, said the president had worked “miracles in the transformation of this country”.

His achievements included more than doubling the monthly tax revenue to $800m and lifting economic growth to an average of more than 6 per cent since taking office, Mr Abbasi said.

A senior western donor agreed the “statistics are not completely cooked” and that, despite some irregularities, Tanzania could now be considered a solidly middle-income country.

Some investors complain that the government was wedded to the socialist legacy of Nyerere, favouring state control of the economy and suspicious of the private sector. “This may be turning into the Cuba of east Africa,” said a local investment banker, adding that in Tanzanian politics it was also often wise to “stick to the devil we know”.

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Other businesses operating in the country were less worried, with an executive from a western oil and gas company saying “continuity” would be welcomed if Mr Magufuli wins. “We may not agree with everything, but this is one of the most politically stable countries in Africa. You can’t take them to court because they control the courts but, that aside, continuity will be good,” he said.

Opposition candidate Tundu Lissu said a win for president John Magufuli would be a disaster for Tanzania. ‘We’re dealing with a vicious autocrat who has used violence to consolidate his power’ © AFP/Getty

For Tanzania’s opposition, however, a ruling party victory would bring an even more severe clampdown and constitutional change to potentially allow Mr Magufuli to run for a third term.

Mr Lissu was this month banned by authorities from campaigning for a week, some of his parliamentary candidates have been prevented from running and authorities have stopped his convoy and fired tear gas at his supporters.

Zitto Kabwe, an opposition politician backing Mr Lissu, said that “if the elections were free and fair Tundu Lissu would have a chance of winning”.

Analysts do not fully share this view, saying that even if the playing field was level Mr Magufuli would probably still beat the required target of more than 50 per cent of the vote.

“Magufuli is popular because he is the only candidate who enjoys coverage in the media,” conceded Dotto Bulendu, a political analyst with St. Augustine University of Tanzania, but the public works plan was genuinely popular with voters.

Mr Abbasi, the government spokesperson, denied that Mr Magufuli’s administration had organised a crackdown on its critics.

However, Mr Lissu, who still has a bullet lodged in his spine from when he was shot in 2017, said a win for the incumbent president would be a disaster for Tanzania.

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“We’re dealing with a vicious autocrat who has used violence to consolidate his power,” he said. “I will not accept a rigged result.”

Via Financial Times