Over the past two years, Magufuli’s presidency has been increasingly overshadowed by media reports and articles analysing his apparently increasingly authoritarian ruling style.

Countless news articles and analytical features have discussed his ruthless attempts to combat corruption, his unrelenting struggle to cut down on government spending and his efforts to address mismanagement across the civil service; further outlining how these bold initiatives and heavy-handed tactics have consequentially led to the repression of Tanzania’s democratic space, the stifling of both the opposition and the media, and raised concerns over the openness of the country’s business environment to foreign investors.

Notably, Magufuli has made no secret of his policy to reduce Tanzania’s dependence on international support (allAfrica.com, 15.08.2016), and his apparent prioritisation of internal affairs over foreign relations has drawn concerns over Tanzania’s increasing isolationism.

Yet – while it is true that as a Head of State Magufuli has made a very limited number of overseas trips since coming to office in 2015 – he appears instead to have delegated the responsibility of nurturing Tanzania’s foreign relationships to a few trusted individuals within his administration.

Impact Points

  • Over the past couple of years, President Magufuli’s focus on domestic issues has ostensibly resulted in Tanzania’s foreign policy becoming less of a priority in his government.
  • Having travelled abroad just five times in two years in an official capacity, Magufuli has delegated much of his international work to his Vice President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Despite this, concerns have been raised over the impact Magufuli’s non-participation in the international arena is having Tanzania’s diplomatic and trade relations.

After one year in power, in November 2016, Magufuli claimed that he had received 47 invitations to travel; he had accepted only three of them. In the ensuing years since his inauguration, the president has thus far made state visits to only three countries – all of them in East Africa (Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda) (IPP Media, 28.01.2018). His first foreign trip to a country outside the East African Community (EAC) was made in January 2017, when he attended that year’s AU summit in Ethiopia.

While his predecessor, Jakaya Kikwete, was routinely criticised for the high frequency of foreign trips he made, Magufuli has been criticised for the opposite. He has not attended several prominent international meetings and summits – including both the 2016 and 2018 African Union (AU) summits. Instead Magufuli appears to be prioritising domestic issues.

He has also placed restrictions on foreign travel for government officials as part of his pledge to cut down on government spending. As well as having to seek clearance from the President’s office before making any official trips, all business and first class travel has been banned, with public officials advised to travel economy (Olle Mwalupinde, 2017). This extreme policy appears to have paid dividends to the tune of some US $429.5 million (TZS 902 billion) in the 12 months between November 2015 and November 2016 (The Citizen, 10.02.2017).

While Magufuli’s lack of travel has raised concerns over Tanzania’s commitments to its international partners, other individuals in Magufuli’s administration have assumed Tanzania’s diplomatic duties over the past two years.

Vice President Samia Suluhu attended the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in South Africa in December 2015. While in January 2016, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa attended the Double Troika Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which was held in Gaborone, Botswana. The 2017 meeting was attended by Tanzania’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Sylvester Ambokile.

Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation, Augustine Mahiga, has also attended his share of meetings on behalf of Magufuli, including two United Nations General Assemblies (UNGA) held in New York in 2017 and in 2016 (The Citizen, 18.09.2017),
and he has made several official visits to a number of countries including Iran, China, the US and South Korea.

In a further attempt to cut back on unnecessary government travel, Magufuli announced that Tanzania’s embassies would assume the duties of representing the country abroad, improving diplomatic cooperation and developing bilateral relations (Zambian Watchdog, 09.11.2015), and has since opened six new Tanzanian embassies around the world (Daily News, 04.12.2016).

Perhaps underlining his tendency to prioritise domestic matters, when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an official visit to Tanzania in January 2017, Magufuli did not meet with him, instead choosing to oversee disaster relief operations in remote areas that had been hit by severe flooding. He delegated the meeting with Yi to Majaliwa and Mahiga (China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 10.01.2017).

This is particularly significant when considering that China is Tanzania’s second major source of investments after India (Azania Post, 18.07.2017).

But while a Magufuli venture into international politics is rare, it is not unheard of.

In November 2017, Magufuli – together with his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni – publicly condemned the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to investigate alleged war crimes in the ongoing crisis in Burundi, arguing that the move undermined any chance of progress in the ongoing EAC-led mediation efforts (The Citizen, 19.11.2017).

Ultimately, Magufuli is proving that as president, he is not exempt from the ramifications of his severe austerity measures, while at the same time attempting to maintain Tanzania’s position as a key participant in important regional and global discussions (SAIIA, 15.08.2016).

While his focus on internal affairs is admirable - and perhaps popular within Tanzania - Magufuli’s habit of delegating his foreign policy responsibilities may not be perceived well by Tanzania’s allies and the wider international community. Attending social functions, meetings and conferences are regarded as an integral part of a country’s foreign policy and are key to building and developing relationships with other governments. Thus, Magufuli’s apparent refusal to play this particular political game may be perceived as a diplomatic slight.

A continued refusal to participate in international politics may ultimately diminish Tanzania’s strong and visible international profile, and could potentially negatively impact the country’s diplomatic and commercial relations, particularly as Tanzania becomes overlooked in both regional and global trade negotiations.

Ultimately, Magufuli is likely to find it increasingly difficult to achieve his goals of job-creation, poverty reduction and economic and infrastructural development without personally engaging with the international community – an important source of finance for his projects.