It was announced late on 17 March that Tanzanian President John Magufuli had died from complications relating to a chronic heart condition. Magufuli’s death occurred after almost a three-week absence from the public eye, which fuelled speculation about his health. The state tried to suppress rumours about the President’s deteriorating condition, arresting several opposition supporters for publicly sharing comments on the matter.
The opposition had repeatedly called on the government to increase transparency about Magufuli’s health with the ACT-Wazalendo Party questioning his fitness for office in recent days and calling for Vice President Samia Suluhu to replace him. Former presidential candidate for the largest opposition party Chadema, Tundu Lissu, claimed that Magufuli had caught the Covid-19 coronavirus which had aggravated his heart condition leaving him incapacitated. Lissu doubled down on these claims on 17 March claiming his sources confirmed that Magufuli had died from Covid-19 related complications. Although credible, this claim remains unconfirmed and is unlikely to be so given the potential political damage to Magufuli’s legacy and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. Magufuli had steadfastly refused to acknowledge the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in Tanzania in the past year, refusing to implement preventative measures or even call for mask-wearing. In fact, the late President demanded that health officials stop publishing official figures in order to maintain the falsehood that there was no significant Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Magufuli’s death has thrown Tanzania into a period of political uncertainly. The autocratic leader dominated the CCM and Tanzanian politics and government, earning him the nickname “the Bulldozer”. In addition, Magufuli has only just secured a second presidential term by winning the October 2020 election (which were marred by allegations of voter intimidation and electoral fraud), meaning that the CCM and Magufuli had seen little need for succession planning. As a result, his death will instigate a power struggle within the CCM, especially as the senior party positions are not mirrored in the government.
As it stands Vice President Samia Suluhu is expected to be sworn in as the country’s new president making her the first woman and first Zanzibari president in Tanzanian history. However, Suluhu is not necessarily particularly powerful within the CCM. She was primarily selected by Magufuli as his running mate in 2015 due to her position as a senior Zanzibari politician ‒ the CCM’s vice-presidential candidate has been from Zanzibar ever since the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form Tanzania in 1964. It should be noted that Suluhu is not the most senior Zanzibari in the CCM as the Vice President (Zanzibar) is Ali Mohamed Shein, the former president of Zanzibar. Magufuli also wanted a female vice president to bolster his claim of being a reformist politician.
One of the major prospective challenges to Suluhu is the CCM National Vice Chairperson (Mainland) Philip Mangula, who has held the position since 2012 and is the heir apparent to succeed Magufuli as the head of the party. Mangula is a long-standing influential power player in the CCM having served as party secretary-general between 1997 and 2007.
Another possible challenger to succeed Magufuli is the CCM’s current Secretary-General Bashiru Ally who is also the Chief Secretary of Tanzania. In holding both of these essential positions Ally wields significant power within both the CCM and the government. As Chief Secretary, Ally oversees the day-to-day operations of the presidency and prepares and manages cabinet meetings. It is suspected that Ally has largely been running the government since 27 February – the last day Magufuli appeared in public. Ally will also likely exercise increased influence if Suluhu is sworn into office given his entrenched position and her need to secure herself as president. While Ally may prefer to remain a power behind the throne, he is well placed to contest the CCM ‒ and by extension national ‒ leadership.
An outsider to contest the CCM chairpersonship is the former Zanzibar president Shein. However, this is considered unlikely as it is generally accepted that a mainland politician holds the Tanzanian presidency in return for Zanzibar retaining an element of autonomy and its own presidency and government.
Similarly, Prime Minister Kassim Majailiwa is not expected to make a play for either the presidency or the CCM leadership at present, given his limited support base within the party. However, as head of government he is well-placed and such a possibility, though unlikely, cannot be discounted.
The political manoeuvring and instability within the CCM is expected to continue until the CCM’s next elective conference currently scheduled for November 2022. However, given Magufuli’s death, this event might be brought forward to limit political intrigue and power battles. It is possible that Suluhu will be installed as president as an interim solution before the CCM’s next leader is selected. However, given that Tanzania is a presidential democracy it will be difficult for the next CCM leader to seamlessly take over the presidency, and this risks the emergence of two centres of power further destabilising the state.
The CCM will also seek to limit this instability and the opposition’s efforts to exploit it. As such, opposition oppression and arrests are expected to continue and possibly even increase in the coming weeks as the CCM moves to reinforce its control over the state in Magufuli’s absence. It is also possible that the security forces could be used to settle internal battles within the party.
Given the recent nature of Magufuli’s death, the situation in Tanzania and within the CCM remains fluid. The fact that Suluhu was not sworn in immediately highlights the uncertainty within the country’s power structures. Tanzania’s stability and ability to respond to other crises such as the long-denied Covid-19 epidemic are highly dependent on the CCM’s ability to manage this transition period.