Letter from: Dar es-Salaam

”He’ll be on time,” said the lady at the front desk at the hotel where I was staying. I’d been in Tanzania and Dar es-Salaam only for a couple of days, and I didn’t really know the driver that had taken me around this hectic city. Nor could I speak to him properly as my Swahili was only marginally worse than his English.

So, now I was wondering if I could trust that he’d pick me up at an ungodly hour to take me to the airport – or if I should order a back-up transfer via the hotel. The receptionist advised against any back-up plan. With president John Magufuli at the helm, Tanzanians were on their toes, she said.

“If I don’t perform well, I’ll lose my job, and where would I go? Finding a job these days is really difficult and to keep a job, you have to deliver. That’s thanks to Magufuli.”

A few days earlier I had had a discussion with another Tanzanian. This time a middle-aged man who praised the president for the way he had sorted out the harbour that used to be infamous for its corrupt personnel and tardiness. Magufuli had put an end to all of that, the man claimed. The president had also tried to weed out under-performing staff at any state entity, clamped down on corruption and put an end to lavish state spending.

Gone were also the extravagant celebrations that used to be the norm on Independence Day.

He has fired 9,000 government workers

When Magufuli was first elected president in 2015, many hailed the man nicknamed The Bulldozer for his habit, as Minister of Works, of pushing aside any obstacle in order to get what he wanted. As a president he has taken a similar approach. He has for instance fired more than 9,000 government workers over fake education certificates and is on a mission to build roads, railroads and pipelines to connect the country to neighbouring Uganda.

However, before leaving for Dar es-Salaam last year, Magufuli and Tanzania hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

It started with the president urging women to stop using birth control.

“Those going for family planning are lazy … they are afraid they will not be able to feed their children,” he was quoted saying by The Independent.

Women in Tanzania have among the highest birth rates in the world and 28 per cent of Tanzanians live in poverty. To increase the fertility rate, is not exactly the solution. Added to that, Tanzania has ratified the Maputo Protocol, an African charter of women’s rights which states women have the right to control their fertility and chose any method of contraception. So, any tampering with these rights is a breach to Tanzania’s previous undertakings.

A few weeks later, the Regional Commissioner of Dar es-Salaam, Paul Makonda, lashed out at the LGBT-community. Makonda threatened the gay community that he had put together a team of officials and police that would target gay people. Homosexuality is socially taboo in the country and same-sex relationships are a criminal offence punishable with life imprisonment. Makonda wanted to take action.

Hundreds of LGBT activists went into hiding. The Tanzanian Foreign Minister tried to save the situation and claimed that Makonda had expressed his own views and not the view of the government. Few believed him.

And just a week before I left, two foreign journalists and press freedom advocates were arrested and interrogated by the authorities. The two were on a fact-finding and networking mission for Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). They were released after several hours in custody and could thereafter leave the country.

All of the above, left me with an ambivalent feeling for my own trip to Tanzania. Mine had nothing to do with press freedom, nor with women’s rights or the LGBT-community.

My research trip was all about cash transfers and the development of Tanzania’s Productive Social Safety Net – a social protection programme targeting the poorest of the poor in an attempt to root out extreme poverty and break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty.

My mission went well. I spent a week interviewing officials, NGO-representatives, beneficiaries of cash transfers, development agents and ordinary Tanzanians. Leaving Dar es-Salaam my note books were full, and I had gained plenty of knowledge of how African countries have started to build up social protection systems, much as the ones we are familiar with in Europe.

However, trips to autocratic, or semi-autocratic countries such as Tanzania and Rwanda always leave me with a lot to mull over. Before my visit, I had many thoughts about Magufuli and the way he had moved Tanzania towards a more intolerable state.

It is a document that should never be compromised

Leaving Tanzania, I had been confronted with citizens of the country who praised the new order. But neither of them had, of course, belonged to the groups that had seen their freedoms being restricted.

Still, I had to ask myself: who sets the agenda? Is freedom of speech just as important as poverty eradication? What comes first: food security or freedom of expression?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN in 1948. It’s a paramount document that should never be compromised.

And yet. As a journalist working in young and immature democracies where a large proportion of the people are still poor and uneducated, I am often confronted with the blunt fact that the universal freedoms won’t fill any stomachs. That is, and will continue to be, a journalist’s dilemma. 

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.