Joking Aside: What you may have missed in Tanzania’s elections

Presidential push-ups, a disappearing secretary-general and more promises than you can shake a stick at. Welcome to Tanzania’s election race.


“I intend to be working [for this country] at all times! I will work while sitting! I will work while squatting! I will work while I’m asleep!” – Dr John Pombe Magufuli, presidential candidate, CCM.

Things are heating up as Election Day draws near in Tanzania. The ruling Chama Cha Mapunduzi (CCM) surprised the nation in the primaries by electing Magufuli as its presidential candidate. He has formerly served as Minister of Public Works and is a bit of a wildcard. A sitting titan. A sleeping menace. A squatting giant.

Since then, there has been a small migration of very important people from CCM to Ukawa, the opposition alliance. In July, the country was shocked as former prime minister Edward Lowassa (who had been one of the favourites for CCM candidacy) slammed the door on CCM, got in his daladala and rode down to opposition offices where he was immediately made into Ukawa´s presidential candidate.

So now, the squatting giant is facing his toughest challenge yet: the wrath of The Defector, Edward Lowassa. Strange things are beginning to happen.

For some top analysis of the background to what looks set to be Tanzania’s closest ever elections and how we got to this point, check out this excellent piece that will tell you all you need know. But for all the things you may have missed from the election, keep reading below.

Magufuli does push-ups!

On 21 September, Magufuli could be seen face down on a dusty platform in front of thousands of supporters, doing push ups. A few days before, someone had publicly suggested that Magufuli is too unfit to run for presidency. Magufuli decided to refute this by, quite literally, showing his muscle.

It is important to remember that the Tanzanian political tradition involves plenty of showmanship, spectacle and performance. Dr John “Chuck Norris” Magufuli is only part of the game, so it would be unfair to ridicule him, right?

And yet, the opposition had a field day on social media, with funny memes, tweets, photo-shopped pictures and more, under the hashtag #kazitu or #hapakazitu. The CCM managed to re-appropriate the hashtags, and even came up with the dangerously catchy song Hapa kazi tu, but they will have to remain on top of their game going forwards – Ukawa supporters are younger, urban and more middle-class than CCM supporters, as well as more media and social-media literate.

For Dr John “Rocky” Magufuli, it is safe to say that his stunt boomeranged through social media and, at least at first, came back to hit him in an area that wouldn’t be exposed if he wasn’t doing push-ups in the first place.

Kikwete throws his weight behind CCM

Sitting president Jakaya Kikwete’s two terms are over, but he will continue as national chairman of CCM until 2018. He therefore has an interest in the continuation of CCM´s stronghold over state structures and does not want to be remembered as the first president to hand over power to the opposition. Recently therefore, Kikwete announced his support for CCM and John “The Hulk” Magufuli.

The question is if Kikwete´s support for CCM will come only in the form of warm words, or if he might use state institutions to take more deliberate and covert measures to ensure success.

The sitting government is all of a sudden fast-tracking certain projects, such as the new development project in Kigoma, which was set in motion right before Magufuli was due to tour the region. Citizens are perhaps being encouraged to remember the good times with JK and forget the less good times (*cough cough* Richmond *cough cough*).

The mysterious disappearance of Dr Slaa

Doctor Slaa has vanished, evaporated, gone forev– nope, wait, he’s back. Or is he…?

Wilbrod Slaa is the former secretary-general of CHADEMA, one of the main opposition parties. He is also an influential person with quite a lot of support. At first Slaa appeared supportive of Edward Lowassa when the latter was named as the opposition’s presidential candidate. But since then, there must have been a quarrel as Dr Slaa became extremely vocal about his opinions, specifically the ones about how Lowassa is corrupt, untrustworthy and thoroughly unfit to run the country.

In July Slaa, went missing. The public wondered and speculated, and CHADEMA finally continued their meetings and campaigns without him.  He did though “speak out” through various third parties, reassuring the public that he had not changed sides. On 8 August, The Citizen reported that Slaa had fled to the US with his family, “fearing for his safety”, although no other papers picked up this story.

Then, in early September, Slaa was in the news again, issuing a statement declaring that he was quitting politics and resigning his post “following a misunderstanding with his fellow party officials over the nomination of former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa”. Let’s see what he does next.

Promises, promises and more promises

CCM seems to have been taken by surprise by the situation in which it finds itself. The party has been without a real challenger since the return of multiparty politics in 1992, and its many influential members have perhaps become too comfortable. Since the electoral system is first-past-the-post, the only real competition is between the two largest parties. And never before has there been so much support for the opposition.

The four main opposition parties formed a loose alliance after they staged a joint walk-out of the constitutional negotiations earlier this year. This alliance, Ukawa, was born on a wave of outrage at the outright rejection of a constitutional draft that, among other things, proposed a more clearly defined three-government solution with Zanzibar, granting the isles more autonomy. Ukawa has enjoyed an unprecedented amount of popular support.

However, CCM is still powerful and is still everywhere.

It is now also fully awake to the real challenge it is facing, and will certainly fight tooth and nail to keep power. A zealous campaign has been set in motion. Roughly put, the campaign strategy ambulates between demonstrating that John “Hercules” Magufuli and his running mate Samia Hassan Suluhu are just people like you and me, and, alternatively, telling people in subtle – albeit really quite menacing – ways what will befall them if CCM doesn’t win. Yet, at the same time, CCM supporters keep reiterating how the elections will be peaceful and that there will be no repercussions for opposition voters. This odd combination of statements is slightly unsettling, kind of like a lion tamer that keeps insisting his lion will definitely not jump up into the stands and tear your grandma limb from limb.

Over the last few weeks, matters have escalated. The rhetoric is becoming feverish, and the battle of promises less and less grounded. On 29 August, Lowassa promised free education for all. On 14 September, Magufuli promised cheaper drugs for livestock. Lowassa responded the same day by promising to make Tanzania a land of “milk and honey”. On 15 September, Magufuli promised to review the amount of job experience that employers can ask for when hiring. On 17 September, Lowassa promised to nationalise all dormant industries. And on the 19 September, Magufuli promised that if he were president there would be no more night-time.

That last one didn’t really happen, but give it a couple more weeks.


Moreover, the campaigns are becoming more focused on the characters of the candidates and less on the issues. The opposition alliance has barely mentioned the constitution despite it being the main reason the alliance exists at all, while CCM has tellingly changed its slogan from ´vote CCM´ to ´vote Magufuli´.

This lack of real issues is becoming a problem and it is sad that Tanzania is losing out on a great opportunity to have an inclusive conversation about gender, oil and gas, mining, and most importantly, what the new constitution should look like. Voters are paying more attention to politics than usual, the world is watching, civil society is ready to go, journalists and academics are poised for debate…and what are they getting? Unfeasible promises, character assassinations, and a middle-aged man doing push-ups.

Marta Tveit is a Tanzanian/Norwegian writer and researcher, currently keeping a close eye on the Tanzanian elections.

Cartoons courtesy of King Kinya.

[Amendment: The push-ups section has been amended to include the fact that the hashtag was used by CCM supporters as well as opponents.]

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5 thoughts on “Joking Aside: What you may have missed in Tanzania’s elections

  1. Nice post, with some very useful analysis, though I feel I should point out a couple of significant misunderstandings.

    First, the commentary on social media responses to Magufuli’s “push-ups” is undermined by the fact that all three tweets cited were posted by supporters of Magufuli praising his stunt rather than (as suggested in the article) Lowassa supporters criticising it.

    Second, the reference to Richmond is the wrong way around. CCM and Magufuli are actually very keen to keep the Richmond scandal in the public eye, because it is more closely associated with Lowassa as an individual than with CCM. There are plenty of other “bad times” and scandals that CCM and Magufuli would rather that voters forgot, but in that particular case, they would be happy if the word Richmond stays in the foreground.

    Finally, one of the most interesting developments of the campaign is how Lowassa’s health has become a big campaign issue – one that gets a lot of attention on social media and on street corners, but almost attention from the media. Indeed, Magufuli’s push-ups were in response to this – look at me, I’m physically fit, look at him … – than to any reported suggestions that Magufuli himself is unfit. One of the tweets included here even (indirectly) references the issue.

  2. Hi Mtega,

    Thanks and thanks for commenting!

    On your first comment; you are very right and we tried to correct that misunderstandingnow. When I first wrote this piece there were more opposition-friendlies who had commented on the push-ups and it did´t seem like CCM supporters would take it up in such a big way, but anyway, my mistake! Still a great historical moment though.

    About your second comment; I didn´t actually mean that Magufuli and or CCM wanted to keep Richmond out of the press, just that sitting president Kikwete would´t want to be remembered only in relation to scandals like that. Finally, I have also noticed the candidates health receiving a lot of attention, although I would´t really call it a campaign issue. Thanks of pointing out that it is mainly Lowassa, I was under the impression the public health-and-fitness purge was hitting both candidates!

    I will continue to read your excellent blog!

  3. Thanks for responding, Marta, and for following my blog as well.

    And I think you are absolutely right about your conclusion: that this is a wonderful opportunity for debate, accountability, and more, and yet the campaign is not living up to this potential.

  4. In the next 14 days Tanzania will be electing their leaders after a long campaign with full of funny promises. It either CCM or CHADEMA who will give us the next president.
    Healthy campaigns would help reap votes of those undecided voters to date. Campaigners need to reach these people wherever they are. Strategically, parties need to look into worthy and healthy promises that can be practical in the eyes of a normal citizen. Make people forget all the past and build trust in people who can give you the precious vote.

    CCM knows why they need Magufuli and they are campaigning for him. CHADEMA may need to know this as it can help them on the other hand.

  5. Good analysis, i totally agree with you on the issue regarding the politician promises. The voters must take a careful move by not deciding to vote basing much on them(promises).This is because most of 2010’s promises are still 2015’s.

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