A tale of two elections, but Magufuli still the big event

Wednesday July 12 2017

Tanzania's President John Magufuli. FILE PHOTO | DANIEL HAYDUK

Tanzania's President John Magufuli. FILE PHOTO | DANIEL HAYDUK AFP

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Rwanda and Kenya’s elections are just around the corner.

The Rwandans do their thing on August 4, and Kenya goes to the polls on August 8.

I cannot remember the last time two East African nations held elections that close.

As is the custom, at this point all reporting is on which candidates have been rigged out and whether, particularly in Kenya’s case, the vote will be peaceful and honest. And if it is stolen, which candidate will be the thief, and so on.

But for all the excitement and drama, the two most important East African election events of the past 15 years happened in Kenya in 2002, and in Tanzania in July 2015.

And, while happening during the election season, they occurred before the vote.

After 23 years in power, in 2002 Kenya’s then-president Daniel arap Moi decided to step down from power. The gruff, iron-fisted Moi was thought not to have even a drop of democratic blood in his veins, but was reputed to have a very good nose for the scent of the times.

Moi’s time, and that of the Independence party Kanu, was really up. The economy was in a shambles, the country was restless and rebellious, and the Nairobi regime was a semi-pariah.

What distinguished Moi, and Kenyan politics in general – unlike, say, Paul Biya in Cameroon or Robert Mugabe – is that he responded to the demands of the time and did the right thing.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, then standing as Moi’s successor, lost the election. The winner, Mwai Kibaki, and his party NARC, were the very opposite of Moi and Kanu.

Kibaki had an aloof aristocratic air about him, was boring, wonkish and, while he took care of his buddies, had a knack of picking competent men and women to run parts of the government where they were most needed. Unlike the closely run Kanu, his NARC was a wonderfully chaotic, ungovernable coalition of a gaggle of parties.

We didn’t see Magufuli

It was a remarkable electoral outcome. It was what Kenya needed, while still being a product of a largely ordinary electoral process. It also led to what has turned out to be the first conventional death of an Independence party in East Africa through natural political decay, not a coup or a revolutionary decapitation. That rarely happens.

In July 2015, Tanzania’s ruling party CCM nominated John Magufuli to be its flagbearer. The rest of East Africa collectively asked; “Magu who?”

Even from outside Tanzania, it had always been the case that you could see the next party leader coming. We didn’t see Magufuli.

By that point, the Tanzanian state’s image had been tainted by years of corruption, and CCM was seen to be in decline, ailing from the same rot that plagued the government.

Magufuli has restored some credibility to the state, and is not seen as part of the corruption network. In this respect, the CCM nomination produced the perfect candidate the country needed.

But Magufuli is also provincial, and has turned out to be the kind of petty autocrat that seemed to have fallen out of fashion in Tanzania. It’s not yet clear how that will affect CCM.

However, his emergence was still pivotal. In 2015, CCM was like the hyena that gave birth to a panther.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]