VERY soon after he was elected in late 2015, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli enamoured many Africans with his no-nonsense, anti-corruption, anti-laziness, tough and austere ways.
It quickly resonated far beyond Tanzania’s borders, particularly with a generation that has been jaded with endless corruption scandals and government excesses. Cheeky Africans on social media quickly adopted the Magufuli way to their own lives in the hilarious Twitter trend #WhatWouldMagufuliDo.
But the shine now seems to be wearing off. Despite its visually dramatic ‘results’, the Magufuli Way is heavy-handed and arguably authoritarian, and the government has been accused of unjustly limiting fundamental rights.
Last week, civil society organisations in Tanzania launched a year-long campaign calling on the government to respect freedom of expression and assembly.
“Without freedom of expression and freedom of assembly there can be no development,” they said of the campaign, which will involve holding seminars, discussions and debates.
It remains to be seen whether Magufuli has lost his ‘Twitter constituency’, but public support for freedom of association in Africa is far from universal, recent data from Afrobarometer shows.
While six in 10 Africans (63%) agree or agree very strongly that they should be able to join any organisation, whether or not the government approves of it, one-third (32%) of citizens say the government should be able to ban any organisation that goes against its policies.
The highest support for freedom of association is in Gabon (90%), Togo (88%), Cote d’Ivoire (87%), Senegal (86%) and Benin (83%).
Apart from being former French colonies, and mostly West African, these five countries have a mixed political history.
Gabon and Togo have been ruled by long-serving strongmen who were then succeeded by their sons: Omar and Ali Bongo in Gabon’s case, and Gnassingbe and Faure Eyadema in Togo.
Cote d’Ivoire had a long-serving strongman whose death plunged the country into political instability and conflict, though recovery is on course.
And Senegal and Benin are on the other side of the spectrum, which have seen several peaceful transfers of power and are lauded for their political stability, civil liberties and freedoms.
It suggests that a widerange of political circumstances can create a desire for personal liberties and civil freedom in people.
On the other hand, the highest support for restrictions is in Liberia (62% say the government should ban organisations it doesn’t like) and Sierra Leone (60%), perhaps a legacy of violent civil war-era organisations that inflicted untold suffering on the population.
Swaziland (58%), Nigeria (57%) and Tanzania (55%) are next, and they are also a mixed bag. Swaziland is ruled by an absolute monarch, Mswati II. Nigeria has had the full spectrum of governance, everything from military dictatorships, civil war, democratic transition and defeat of an incumbent at the ballot.
And Tanzania has had one party at the helm since independence; going by this data, Magufuli’s tough ways do have broad public support.
Still, the data suggests that a substantial number of Africans want to be free to join any organisation they want to join, but also don’t want to give carte blanche to any and all organisations they can imagine, the Afrobarometer researchers argue.
In other words, other people are the problem – people trust their own judgement, but not that of others.