While the world watches in horror as refugees from war torn areas of the Middle East and Africa attempt to flee to safety, a democratic earthquake is about to shake up the region that will have positive implications for Africa and the world. Tanzania, an East African country with the largest coastal port on the Indian Ocean and one trillion cubic feet of natural gas in its territorial waters, might very well elect the first opposition candidate as President in its fifty plus years of independence from Great Britain.
Much like Israel in 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud trounced the only ruling party the country knew, Tanzania’s Chadema Party, led by charismatic former prime minister Edward Lowassa, seems poised to oust the ruling party CCM and its presidential candidate, Dr. John Pombe Magufuli.
This being Africa, the incumbent party is not beyond resorting to dirty tricks to try and stem the opposition from making inroads. Opposition campaign volunteers have been arrested under such trumped up charges as staging illegal demonstrations. Others are being detained under the Cyber Security Law, ostensibly enacted to prevent criticism of the government. Permits have been denied to the opposition for campaign rallies. Yet all that has not stopped tens of thousands of supporters to show up in support of Lowassa, as he often takes public transportation to campaign.
Lowassa is no populist. He defected from the ruling CCM to run the opposition. He is a successful affluent businessman and a Christian in a country that is at least half Muslim and still relatively poor. His term as Prime Minister ended when he was scapegoated in a corruption scandal, his popularity only seemed to rise as he kept his seat in Parliament with dignity.
I have a business in Tanzania and have spent a lot of time there so I know the country well. The energy and buzz Lowassa’s campaign is generating is unlikely in a country used to the ascension of compliant technocrats selected by ruling party bosses. President Obama recently chided African leaders for holding on to power way beyond their expiration date. In Tanzania, transition of power is a regular occurrence every decade or so, even if to another ruling party hack. This time, it’s different and it will affect the geopolitical landscape for years to come. Here’s why.
Corruption is endemic throughout Africa and Tanzania is no exception. Though some high level officials have been caught, prosecuted and jailed for their malfeasance, graft is more a problem on the lower levels of government where low paid bureaucrats or traffic police supplement their living with small payoffs. Tanzania is a vibrant democracy with an independent judiciary; thus, high level corruption pales in comparison to, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nonetheless, the population has a sense that change is needed on the top and not in the form of a different face on the same body.
Some argue that Lowassa comes from that same body and he’s no different from the rest. They are wrong. Lowassa sees a chance for one of the world’s fastest growing economies, rich in natural resources with a driven, hard working and hard partying population to emerge as a leader in Africa and be a force of good in the world. This is only achievable through a complete overhaul of a tired system.
This particular election is important to the West for a few crucial reasons. A transition of power from one party to another is so rare in Africa that when it happened in Nigeria, it was in the headlines for weeks. The election of a Christian in a country with such a large Muslim population (outgoing President JK Kikwete is Muslim) will prove to the world that democracy is compatible with Islam. A crackdown on corruption and further financial reforms desperately needed in Tanzania is usually achieved only through a change in power. Finally, the greatest proof of stability is the peaceful transition of power and right now Tanzanians seem to hunger for change with stability.
Lowassa is a known quantity and he’s built a coalition of opposition. No matter the outcome, October 25th 2015 will be a historic day. It is sure to be the closest election in African history. We need to hope for fair and transparent elections so that the winner is not a specific candidate or party but Tanzania, Africa and world stability.