How Magufuli altered Tanzania’s Foreign Policy

President John Magufuli (right) and his Kenya counterpart, President Uhuru Kenyatta, are all smiles after a past EAC meeting in Arusha. PHOTO | State House

So much has been written over the last five years about how decisive and unconventional leadership of - now the late - President John Magufuli upended politics since his administration came to power in November 2015. But one key area, Foreign Affairs, hasn’t received as much scrutiny, in part because the foreign-policy establishment, though tiny, lacks organisation, as well as a culture of open, intellectual debates. In a country such as ours, where the expression of dissent has the potential to ruin future prospects, their choice of silence, which is key for self-preservation, is understandable.

Two key aspects of the late President’s political journey seem to have had a sizable influence on his approach towards foreign policy. The first aspect is his political experience. Although he served as a Member of Parliament, and a minister, for about 20 years, he did not have an opportunity to gain significant experience in foreign relations.

The second aspect is the context characterising his early days in office. The late President won a contentious nomination process within his party in 2015 and later that year ran against a revitalised opposition under the candidacy of the influential former Prime Minister, Mr Edward Lowassa.

The circumstances underpinning the President’s rise to power meant that he ran the risk of becoming a lame-duck leader. There is no doubt that Dr Magufuli’s administration faced a key strategic dilemma from the beginning – either to dismantle the alternative centres of power that had come to limit his authority or accept a significantly reduced mandate, even in comparison with his successor. His determination to tame the opposition, through restrictions on political activities, media space and civil society presented a huge point of schism in relations with ‘friends of Tanzania’, amongst other groups. Many saw the restrictions as a reversal of gradual but steady democratic reforms that had come to define progress in Tanzania.

A fundamental change that President Magufuli sought to achieve, as far as the strategic direction of Tanzania’s foreign policy is concerned, was to stir the country away from a nation that benefited from a great deal of goodwill, based on its gradual embrace of liberal democracy. It seems his aim was to substitute the dominant currency of engagement with friends of Tanzania - ‘ideology’ - with commerce, in line with the country’s new foreign policy, which calls for emphasis on economic diplomacy. He knew that aid dependency gave foreign nations enormous influence and resolved to eliminate this leverage through better revenue collection, and aggressive engagement. This attempt created a lot of tension as traditional donors reallocated and withheld aid, at least for a while,in a bid to obtain concessions.

As a typical ’realist’, President Magufuli believed in hard power as embodied by his many speeches.

He viewed the international system in its exact form - western-dominated, and interest-focused. For him, leverage in foreign relations came from a point of strength - nation’s resources, and not the embrace of a popular but ‘slippery’ ideal - democracy. His point of departure was that the ‘country is rich’, and outsiders – whether Africans or Westerners - covet the resources.

How Magufuli altered Tanzania’s Foreign Policy

The late President Magufuli’s administration had a zero-sum view towards interests and this reality had a significant impact on how his regime approached transnational issues such as refugees, violent extremism and regional trade.

On the question of refugees, for instance, the fifth-phase government was keen to ensure their quick repatriation, but largely disengaged from the responsibility of resolving domestic issues that led to the exodus in the first place. This has been a conundrum characterising the situation in Burundi and its refugees in Kigoma. Mediation by the late President Benjamin Mkapa wavered in part because of this unwitting misalignment of objectives.

A quick and decisive military action to suppress a budding religion-inspired insurgency in the Coastal Region restored a waning confidence in the security forces. But, evidence shows that the problem is transnational as it straddles the Tanzania–Mozambique border and requires robust collective action. While Mozambique reached out, in search of help, there is no evidence that Tanzania offered more than commitments to coordinate actions, as each side worked to address the threat on its territory. Cross-border incursions into Tanzania, as seen over the last year, have revealed the limitations of relying on internal, largely defensive actions.

Perhaps no other case provides a better embodiment of the shift in Tanzania’s positioning under President Magufuli than the escalation of the rivalry between Uganda and Rwanda in 2019. While in the past Tanzania would have led a mediation process, the two East African Community members had to turn to Angola for assistance in initiating a journey towards rapprochement. There is evidence that Angola was also involved in Burundi as Tanzania retreated from 2017. A brief foray into South Sudan through the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) faltered partly because of limited structured support.

Tanzania’s relationship with Kenya has always been delicate. President Magufuli’s term in office strained it further through tighter controls on movement of goods and labour as his administration tried to free up more jobs for citizens, and protect nascent industries. Although Kenya closed its border briefly in 2020 due to a disagreement over Covid-19 management protocols, there has not been a fundamental shift in how the two nations relate, especially if history is taken into account. Relations with Kenya suffered the most under the late President Julius Nyerere, especially in the period following the collapse of the first East African Community in 1977.

President Magufuli delegated most of his foreign engagement activities. Although there is no indication that he had less control in this important realm of policy, over-delegation created a sense that he did not consider foreign policy as central to his quest to achieving his domestic priorities. The efficacy of this approach is a question of debate, but the bulk of his legacy is anchored to what he did at home: building essential infrastructure.

May his soul rest in eternal peace!

Dastan Kweka is a freelance analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He is an alumnus of the Natural Resource Governance Institute’s (NRGI) Summer School (2015).