Magufuli directive could save $51m but needs legal backing

Saturday November 14 2015

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli inspects a guard of honour at his swearing-in ceremony in Dar es Salaam on November 5, 2015. PHOTO | AFP

The financially hamstrung new government of Tanzania could save up to Tsh32 billion ($51.1 million) following the decision to suspend foreign trips for civil servants as a cost-cutting measure.

However, opposition lawmakers and the international community have downplayed the decision, urging the government to instead seek a long-term solution of managing fiscal discipline and expanding the domestic tax base.

The directive followed President John Pombe Magufuli’s busy first week in office, which included a surprise visit to Muhimbili National Hospital, where he disbanded the board and fired its managing director for ineffectiveness.

Besides the head of state instructing the Tanzania Revenue Authority to increase its tax base, he also summoned all the permanent secretaries and directed them to focus on service delivery.

Expenditure associated with frequent foreign trips has been an issue of concern among the public and in parliament over the past five years, with lawmakers questioning the large numbers of civil servants travelling abroad to attend seminars and workshops seen as unimportant to the country.

READ: Magufuli curbs foreign travel for officials, tax exemptions


President Magufuli inherited foreign and domestic commercial loans totalling Tsh41 trillion ($19 billion), up from Tsh11 trillion ($5.5 billion) in 2005, when his predecessor President Jakaya Kikwete was sworn in as the fourth president of Tanzania. His biggest challenge will be to repay the debt amid reduced donor support and financing expensive election promises.

The revelation prompted the then chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of parliament to direct the government and CAG to conduct an audit into the matter, although a report of their findings is yet to be tabled in parliament.

Seek permission to travel

Premi Kibanga, the assistant press secretary to the president, said in a statement after President Magufuli’s meeting with PSs that civil servants would hence seek the president’s or chief secretary’s permission before travelling abroad. Besides, Tanzanian ambassadors and high commissioners will do most of the official activities.

“If there is an urgent undertaking abroad, one could be allowed to travel after getting permission from the president or the chief secretary,” read part of the statement issued by Ms Kibanga.

The directive is likely to have a huge impact on the senior civil servants who use foreign trips to earn extra income. A cross-section of civil servants who spoke to The EastAfrican said the tendency is a deeply entrenched culture in public service and that the president is likely to face massive resistance from civil servants who benefit from it.

At the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria, in May, for example, China, with its one-and-a-half billion population, had the biggest entourage of 80 delegates while Tanzania had 68.

The biggest losers following the directive may be airlines and travel agents since most of the civil servants going abroad on state-funded trips travel first class and business class. The market price of a business class ticket to Europe or America is $8,000 but the government pays more than $14,000 for it.

Records at the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi party offices indicate that President Magufuli has travelled abroad just six times since he joined the Cabinet 20 years ago.

The European Union’s ambassador to Tanzania, Filberto Ceriani-Sebregondi, said although it was important for the government to be strict about travel expenses and expensive cars, it needs to focus on reforms and improving efficiency in service delivery.

He said it should direct its efforts to good revenue collection and expenditure reduction. Tanzania collects only 14 per cent of GDP in revenues while in regional countries this figure is 20 per cent, and only a million Tanzanians pay taxes.

Zitto Kabwe, MP-elect for Kigoma Urban and a former PAC chairman, said it was not enough to give directives without creating a binding legal framework to control the practice, as well as public service reforms, to make such directives sustainable.

“We have for years been debating this issue without a solution,” said Mr Kabwe.