The dramatic resignation this week, of Job Ndugai, the Speaker of Tanzania's National Assembly, reflects both the dichotomy of African party politics and the continuing efforts by President Samia Suluhu to assert her authority over the fractious ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi.
Ndugai resigned amidst a hail of criticism from a section of CCM supporters, after he made remarks that appeared to oppose President Samia’s pursuit of external borrowing to drive through huge infrastructure projects that were started by her predecessor. Using metaphors that suggested the president was mortgaging the country, Ndugai had crossed the red line.
In a fiery speech on Wednesday that was directed as much at Mr Ndugai and other government detractors within the CCM, the President Samia made it clear to all political players that they were either with her, or with her enemies.
Beyond party squabbles and CCM for that matter, Mr Ndugai represents the dilemma members of dominant political party’s face in Africa and the pitfalls of power concentration. How much space for diversity of opinion exists in these organisations? How far apart can a member’s independent views be from the centre, before they are considered hostile?
Ordinarily, as Speaker, Ndugai would be expected to enjoy the independence conferred upon him by constitutional arrangement. Yet as a high-ranking member of the CCM, he is expected to toe the party line, supporting the Executive agenda in an outside parliament.
President Samia’s refusal to accept his apology might have been necessary, but it also raises questions about a shift from the generally accommodative line that she has pursued since ascending to power last March.
Faced every hour of her day by so called former president John Magufuli orphans who mourn the government’s departure from the late president’s inward-looking policies, anyone in Samia’s position would out of reflex react the same way perhaps. President Samia is running a pared down economy, hit by the ravages of the two year Covid-19 pandemic. She inherited major projects such as the standard gauge railway and the Julius Nyerere hydropower station at critical stages of implementation and they will only make sense if they are completed. She needs support to see them through, rather than non-constructive criticism. More so from her party leadership.
With an election just three years away, Ndugai’s remarks could also be representative of the undercurrents within CCM and the crystalising of anti-Samia factions. If she is to have a fighting chance in 2025, she needs to build her own legacy. That would not be possible if she allowed herself to get distracted from her agenda by those who are fundamentally against her, silently or publicly like Ndugai.
Tanzanians should not spend much time debating Ndugai’s resignation. That is what politicians do in socially and democratically advanced societies. It also frees him of accusations of acting from within to undermine the party agenda.
Equally however, President Samia should tread carefully. She was embraced by Tanzania and the international community precisely because of not being Magufuli. Political factions aside, the average Tanzanian simply wants to be heard. Recent actions such as the jailing of political opponents undermine popular perception of her reformist tag. The president has a fight on her hands, but she must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.