The honeymoon appears to be finally over for Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who initially charmed the world with his fight against corruption as critics raised eyebrows over his leadership style which, they say, does not tolerate dissent.
Two years since he replaced Jakaya Kikwete, President Magufuli received a scathing Christmas Day reality check from an unlikely quarter — the Church — which exhorted him to be more accommodative of views different to his own and those of the ruling party Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
Bishop Zachariah Kakobe of Full Gospel Bible Fellowship in Dar es Salaam, while calling on the president to repent, said the country appeared to be reversing democratic gains.
“If the country has been returned to a one-party state, we should be told so. You just go to Parliament and pass a law to effect that, because you (CCM) are the majority,” said Bishop Kakobe.
The timing of the attacks from the church appear to be in response to Dr Magufuli’s presidential clemency to two paedophiles who were serving life sentences for molesting girls.
The political undertones of the criticism from the church had been building since September when the Immigration Department questioned a Catholic bishop Severine NiweMugizi after he asked President Magufuli to resume talks on a new Constitution (Katiba).
Bishop NiweMugizi’s Rulenge Catholic Diocese borders Rwanda. Without Katiba, the bishop said, Magufuli’s presidency was doomed to fail. The president had earlier said constitutional review was neither among his priorities nor campaign promises.
“Even God does not intimidate his critics and He is mightier than Magufuli. Who are you not to be criticised? Military forces are not mightier than God… it is high time Magufuli repented,” Bishop Kakobe said.
The CCM has not responded to the criticism but Frank Kamugisha, a regional Parents Wing chairman, quoted Romans 13:1 (For there is no authority except that which God has established) in urging the bishop to submit himself to the governing authority. But, more on the age-old church versus state debate later.
President Magufuli has recently come under stinging criticism over his leadership style.
War against corruption
When he took over from Jakaya Kikwete in October 2015, he earned international acclaim for his war against corruption and efforts to change the work ethic by sacking corrupt ministers and dismissing lazy workers on the spot whenever he visited government institutions unannounced.
But locals were alarmed at the manner in which he went about sacking public servants in public.
That concern over his leadership style appears to have grown into open criticism despite most leading opposition politicians not willing to speak on the issue last week for fear of reprisals.
However, CCM insiders term the criticism as corruption fighting back, fuelled by powerful cartels that had formerly benefitted from tenders in sectors such as mining, which President Magufuli has been trying to streamline.
Shortly after he came under attack for the clemency to the paedophiles, Christian clerics started voicing concern over the shrinking space for freedom of speech and opinion.
Bishop Kakobe told his congregation during a Christmas service sermon that the president should repent for muzzling political expression and running the country as if it were a single-party state.
Retrogressive child policies
In June, the head of state stirred anxiety when he announced that no pregnant girl would be allowed back to class in a state school after giving birth.
“As long as I am president no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. We cannot allow this immoral behaviour to permeate our primary and secondary schools. After getting pregnant, you are done.”
He justified his policy pronouncement on grounds that pregnant girls would be setting a bad example to their peers and that new mothers would be disruptive. “After calculating a few maths sums she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom; ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby’,” he said.
Civil society groups see such an edict as a reversal of the progressive child policies that were put in place by Mr Kikwete.
Opposition nearly cowed
In June 2016, the Magufuli administration banned opposition rallies on grounds that the campaigns were over and the opposition should wait till the next campaigns in 2020, attracting hordes of criticism from the opposition.
Recently there has been an exodus of politicians crossing over from the opposition Chadema to CCM amid allegations of bribery to encourage the defections.
Opposition Chief Whip, Tundu Lissu, who survived an assassination attempt in September, has already read mischief into the defections, saying they showed “a lack of principle” and arise from political pressure and a desire to reap personal benefit.
He maintained that Chadema’s goal to bring genuine reforms to Tanzania remained unshaken adding that the government needed to respect human rights and dignity of its citizens.
Even within the CCM, President Magufuli is said to be struggling to gain acceptance among party veterans. He was seen as an “outsider” who clinched the party nominations following protest votes from Edward Lowassa supporters who were angry that the name of the former Prime Minister was missing from the list of eligible aspirants.
Could Mr Kikwete have had his successor in mind last August when he called upon ruling parties in Africa not to view opposition parties as enemies but partners in fostering democratic principles based on the rule of law?
Church versus State?
With the Tanzanian opposition nearly cowed, the clergy is now taking on President Magufuli. Some critics have, however, accused Bishop Kakobe of mixing religion and politics and are urging him to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Two days after Bishop Kakobe’s outburst, Bishop Benson Bagonza of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, Diocese of Karagwe in the region of Kagera, criticised the notion of separation between religion and politics.
On his Facebook page, Bishop Benson Bagonza criticised this tirade against religious leaders addressing political issues.
“When they build schools they are not (seen to) interfere with the Ministry of Education; when they build hospitals they do not interfere with the Ministry of Health; when they construct water wells they do not interfere with the Ministry of Water, but when they criticise the political system they are told they are interfering with politics. Something is wrong here,” he wrote.
In a seeming response to the criticism, the government on Thursday threatened to revoke the registration of religious organisations that “mix religion and politics.”
“Recently, some leaders of religious societies have been using their sermons to analyse political issues, which is contrary to the law,” said a statement by Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Projest Rwegasira. “Any violation of the law could lead to cancellation of the registration of the concerned religious society.”
Reporting by Christopher Kidanka, Dorothy Ndalu and Fred Oluoch.