Tanzania: Will princeling Mwinyi avoid father’s mistakes?

By Joseph Burite

Posted on Saturday, 18 February 2023 16:15
(L) Tanzanian ex-President Ali Hassan Mwinyi; (R) his son, Zanzibari President Hussein Mwinyi (US Africa Command, Wikimedia commons, CC)

In his autobiography, 'Mzee Rukhsa; Safari Ya Maisha Yangu' (Mr. Permission; a journey of my life) former Tanzanian president Ali Hassan Mwinyi massages Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night quote, as he describes his slow but steady rise to power in Tanzania.

“With the consent of my fellow Tanzanians, I found myself thrust with greatness,” he writes.

This much is true – a 1970 surprise appointment as state minister in the office of the president,  an unexpected recommendation in 1984 by then-president Julius Nyerere’s confidant, Thabit Kombo, propelled him to the Zanzibar presidency after the resignation of Aboud Jumbe Mwinyi (not related).

And finally, in 1985, Mwinyi was far from being a contender to succeed founding father Nyerere but it was a shocking elimination of foreign affairs minister Salim Ahmed Salim, the earlier death of prime minister Edward Molinge Sokoine, plus the hesitation of the powerful Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party secretary general, Rashid Kawawa that handed Mwinyi the presidency.

No happy accident

The same cannot be said of his scion, Zanzibar President Hussein Mwinyi, who has mastered the art of inconspicuous but effective statecraft; for Hussein, it’s a calling and an art of loyal service to the party of Julius Nyerere.

Today, he stands as the highest achiever in the party aristocracy driven by ambitious princelings like January Makamba, son of former party secretary general Yusuf Makamba and Nnape Nauye, son of another Nyerere confidant, Brigadier Moses Nnauye.

It’s no coincidence.

The 56-year-old medical doctor steadily worked his way up in the years, 2000-2005, from MP for the mainland coastal area of Mkuranga, his father’s birthplace, while at the same time cutting his teeth in cabinet as a junior minister for health up until 2005. A two-year stint as minister of state for union affairs from 2006 propelled him to senior cabinet positions as minister of health and social welfare from 2012 to 2014, a portfolio once held by his father.

Hussein’s near-decade as defence minister from 2014 before rising to the Zanzibari presidency helped him solidify diplomatic contact with China, a major arms supplier to Tanzania. These contacts go far back to his father’s visits to China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Unlike Nyerere, whose sons only had their father’s political clout to ride on, the younger Mwinyi has had an added advantage of solid business networks cultivated in the decade of his father’s presidency.

His father’s economic reforms opened up the economy to the benefit of the Muslim elite like Salim Bahkresa, Gulamabbas Dewji and the late Ali Mufuruki.

Revisiting economic policies

It’s a resume impressive enough to put him on a path to his father’s former job. Yet concerns linger that age-old misgivings about Mwinyi’s economic policies would harm Hussein’s chances in the post-Magufuli succession.

In the reformative years after Nyerere’s retirement, the only authoritative figure during this chapter of the country’s history was the calm and collected elder Mwinyi, who essentially never hogs the limelight.

By Mwinyi’s own account, he came to power in a one-party socialist Ujaama state to find a country riddled with scarcity of essential goods that gave rise not just to price controls but also rampant smuggling.

Foreign currency was in short supply so imports were hardly affordable, resulting in annual inflation as high as 30%. On the back of this, a predominant array of public sector enterprises yielded to inefficiency, burdening the state with financial support amid fiscal deficits – a conundrum that saw public debt rise from 20% in 1970 to 165%, with 93% of that external debt.

Mwinyi also had to contend with an agricultural sector collapsing under the weight of price controls and a lack of inputs that affected cooperative societies.

Even an ardent socialist like Nyerere had started to embrace market reform ideas. As the sun set on his presidency, he commenced talks with IMF and the World Bank with a view of opening up the economy, according to Mwinyi, who clarifies in the book that this is a mission he carried forward after succeeding the former.

Political project and historical record

More than two decades after leaving power, the nonagenarian still needed convincing by his former presidential speech writer, Ombeni Sefue, to work on the autobiography to set the record straight regarding his choices as president.

Sefue says he “should put in proper context and depth why he had to embark on economic reforms, including privatisation and respond to the significant criticism leveled against him.”

Sefue, who ghost-wrote the 491-page autobiography, told The Africa Report that it was difficult for some people to accept that all these public corporations that Mwalimu Nyerere had established or nationalised would now be privatised.

He reckons the criticism was there even though it was obvious that all these public enterprises were doing badly.

“In reality, we didn’t have a choice; but some people continued to criticise him. He wanted to put the record straight as to why he took the decisions that he did and highlight the positive results that came out of those decisions,” Sefue said.

It was also a departure point to clarify that Nyrere was not against privatisation per se, but he had some issues about how certain privatisations happened.

“Mwinyi wanted people to realise Mwalimu had sadly also realised that the time had come for some changes to happen in our economic system and policies,” he said.

With these clarifications, Mwinyi has re-positioned his legacy and cleared the way for his political heir; his book is as much a political project as it is a record of history.

CCM’s delicate balance

As Mwinyi revisits the past, ruling CCM has had to do the same. The unwritten power-alternating rule where the predominantly islander Muslims and the Christian mainlanders of Tanganyika take the presidency every 10 years was hit with an unexpected situation when president John Pombe Magufuli died just months into his second term in 2021.

The carefully planned once-in-a-decade succession was upended with Samia Suluhu rising to the presidency by constitutional order. Her rise sparked a party revolt that the president is still struggling to rein in as Tanganyikan Turks worked to undermine her with a view that the term was for a mainlander to complete.

To this end, Samia, now well into her fourth cabinet reshuffle within two years, has sought to build her own base with a mixture of populist spending and easing of opposition controls as Tanzania’s first female leader looks to avoid becoming a one-term president.

Samia has put forth the 4Rs—reconciliation, resilience, reform and rebuilding– a raft of bold ideas, according to Semkae Kilonzo, the executive director of Policy Forum, a network of Tanzanian civil society think tanks.

“If the reforms begin to bear fruit sooner and we see meaningful and inclusive economic growth, she will gain the support of both the technocrats and the public to enable her to continue with the 4Rs agenda.”

While those who fall back on an old insular look at the world will always be present in the ranks, Kilonzo says that with visible progress, they can be isolated.

As Samia governs, Hussein Mwinyi remains in the rearview mirror. He was expected to naturally move from the State House in Zanzibar in 2025 to the one of Tanzania in Dodoma just as his father did to the then-capital of Dar es Salaam a decade ago. It is those competitive considerations that saw her visit China at the end of last year to try and lure support from Tanzania’s foremost ally.

But CCM is at a crossroads and it will take a delicate balance to reunite the party of Nyerere ahead of the next general election in 2025. And unlike his father upon whom greatness was thrust out of sheer luck, when it comes to its pursuit, Hussein Mwinyi is a man to watch.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options