THINKING ALOUD: Tanzania acclaimed at UN General Assembly

Thursday October 19 2017

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

By Prof Zulfiqarali Premji

The theme at the 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly (Unga-72) in mid-September was ‘Focusing on people: striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable Planet.’ It is very relevant to Africa today, where abject poverty is increasing – and there is massive desertification due to forest depletion.

Indeed, there seemingly is no hope for a decent future for a majority of Africa’s youth.

Much of this is the result of power-hungry, corrupt leaders. For example, Angola President Jose Eduardo dos Santos only relinquished the highest office in the land after 38 years – and after making sure that he and his family maintain control of power by creating a special constitutional title, namely ‘President of the Republic Emeritus Honorary!’

If nothing else, this confers on him and his close family members immunity from prosecution. It’s estimated that the immediate-past president is worth more than $20 billion. This clearly illustrates the leadership crisis – and the cause of poverty – in Africa. Enigmatically, Africa is not poor; but most – if not all – of its leaders are filthy rich, having made the continent poor.

Addressing the Assembly, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda spoke eloquently about UN leadership, and the need for UN transformation. Surprisingly, though, he didn’t mention anything about the poverty in his country . President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda asked questions that had no answers. His were on who would lose if all the people lived a decent life, with 2,500 calories intake per day, immunization, etc. For him, parasitism is the only obstacle to global affluence!

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe mumbled something about lots of issues, mainly reflecting displacement psychology problems in his country, claiming that they are mainly due to the West. He singled out US President Donald Trump for criticism.

This, to me, was pure rhetoric; parody of some sort that did not address the real causes of poverty and other issues in the countries they have been leading for years. It would have been nice to know why all these presidents were clinging to power – as if there was no one to replace them! One delegate from the Ethiopian team, Baye Tadesse Teferi, took the Unga-72 opportunity to secure refugee status in the United States.

Oh! Tanzanians really miss you, ‘Mwalimu’ (Tanzania President Julius Nyerere: 1962-85). When you left us 18 years ago (October 14, 1999), all hope was also lost. After your departure, subsequent governments seemed interested only in a ‘status quo policy.’ They watched as their few trusted cronies got richer by the day, failing to protect our natural resources. The poor majority suffered the most. The gap between the rich and poor grew exponentially.

Now, Mwalimu: things are different – and even the UN is praising Tanzania! Our delegation at Unga-72 numbered only three officials – and they all stayed in a modest hotel.

Other African countries had entourages of 20 or more delegates, who luxuriated in 5-star hotels in posh New York. Did they really come to discuss poverty alleviation or poverty elevation? No one now refers to the ‘Arusha Declaration and TANU Policy on Socialism and Self-Reliance’ as promulgated by the Mwalimu Administration on February 5, 1967! This is most unfortunate.

We are told that Tanzania has sustained a relatively high rate of economic growth over the last decade, averaging 6–7 per cent a year. But, while the nation’s poverty rate has declined from 60 per cent in 2007 to 47 per cent in 2016, the number of poor in absolute terms has not really declined. This is, of course, partly because of its high population growth rate. About 12 million Tanzanians still live in extreme poverty on earnings of less than $0.60 a day; that is below the internationally-acknowledged poverty line. Many of those living barely above the poverty line heavily risk sliding back into poverty in the event of some socio-economic shock or other. Now, Mwalimu: we have President John Magufuli. Dr Magufuli has made significant changes that might perhaps result in some of your dreams finally being realized!

First and foremost, Dodoma now looks like a capital city – and, the person who is behind this, President Magufuli, is slated to move there soon.

His government now pays for primary and secondary education for Tanzanian children – which has drastically increased primary school enrolment. Medicines are now available in public hospitals – and civil servants are more accountable. Also, farmers are relatively better off than they were in the last few decades. All because JPM has reoriented public expenditure toward development spending, cutting recurrent expenditure significantly, and intensifying efforts to mobilise domestic revenues. Measures have been introduced to control tax exemptions.

Importantly, big-time, grand corruption is steadily decreasing, and there is stigmatisation hence there: ‘corruptophobia!’

The ongoing strategy of investing in more infrastructure, improving the business environment, increasing agricultural productivity, beefing-up the tourism industry, efficient services delivery through building up a healthy and skilled workforce, managing urbanization – and many more such initiatives – is bound to result in a better life for more ordinary Tanzanians.

With all these good things happening today, there is a budding tendency to be less tolerant to views from the political opposition. Indeed, there have been somewhat unpleasant responses against those who are claimed to belittle the government. Such unpleasantries should stop – and all Tanzanians must strive to build a much tolerant society, learning to accept and live with a diversity of views.

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas) professor currently living in Canada. Prof Premji recently visited Dar es Salaam