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Tanzania Election Nears With Voters Seeking Faster Changes

  • Reuters

Edward Lowassa, presidential candidate of Tanzania's opposition party CHADEMA -- a coalition of four opposition political parties, popularly known in Swahili as UKAWA -- holds a campaign rally for the Oct. 25 election in Manyara, Tanzania, Sept. 25, 2015.

Edward Lowassa, presidential candidate of Tanzania's opposition party CHADEMA -- a coalition of four opposition political parties, popularly known in Swahili as UKAWA -- holds a campaign rally for the Oct. 25 election in Manyara, Tanzania, Sept. 25, 2015.

On the streets and in board rooms, Tanzanians are calling for change as they head to elections next month, demanding growth that reaches the poor, an end to red tape that holds back business and a crackdown on pervasive corruption.

Boasting huge gas reserves, a wealth of mineral deposits, vast tracts of arable land and sandwiched between two African trade blocs, Tanzania could be a regional powerhouse.

Instead, its railways are creaking, power cuts force industry to rely on costly back-up generators, entrepreneurs complain of crippling bureaucracy and plans for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plant are making halting progress.

"The country has a lot of resources but the people are not benefiting," said Lucy Faustin Almas, 39, who runs a stall in the sprawling commercial capital and port city of Dar es Salaam.

Voter frustrations

Tanzania's main opposition groups have united for the first time behind one presidential challenger, former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, who has tapped into some of the frustration and drawn thousands to rallies across the country.

He faces John Magufuli, the front-runner according to two polls and the new candidate for the ruling CCM party, which has dominated the country for more than a decade.

Critics say neither candidate offers a real break from the past – Lowassa only quit the CCM in July. But both have promised to review policy, and the race to the Oct. 25 vote has stoked a popular debate played out on street corners and in the media, a rare sight in a nation led by one party for so long.

Much of the debate has focused on the economy, which continues to lag its neighbors.

Tanzania boasts economic growth of 7 percent a year, yet it is largely driven by state investment, and poverty remains stubbornly high. Annual income per capita at $930 in 2014 was below the Sub-Saharan African average, World Bank figures show.

By comparison, economically free-wheeling Kenya has a bigger economy despite fewer natural resources. State-dominated Ethiopia is growing faster. And Mozambique, once torn apart by war, is moving more swiftly with its LNG plans.

'Lacks business infrastructure'

"It is a country that is ultimately going to be far richer than Kenya because of its resources, but it lacks the business infrastructure for you to do business efficiently," said one Nairobi-based private equity investor, voicing frustration at what he called a "vicious web of bureaucracy".

CCM has ruled over a relatively stable country since independence in 1961 and shifted away from socialism in the 1990s. But executives complain that it shows a lingering distrust of private enterprise.

"Suspicion has been there," acknowledges Abdulrahman Kinana, secretary general of CCM, although he insists that attitudes have changed. "To develop the private sector takes time."

Economists say private business needs a bigger role if Tanzania is to generate the 600,000 to 700,000 new jobs needed each year for the expanding population of 47 million.

For now, most jobs being created are informal, with workers hawking on streets or working from home, rather than joining registered businesses. While cities expand, the rural areas where most people live and work are languishing.

"We have a fast growing population, we have poverty that is refusing to go away, and we have wealth ... but this wealth is concentrated in a few hands," said Ali Mufuruki, chairman of investment firm Infotech.

Hurdles to private business

Private enterprise faces hurdles at every step, he said. His plan for a new shopping mall has faced three years of delays as he seeks approvals. The unwritten rule is that a bribe would ease the way. "I have refused to play that game," he said.

One of his ventures to create low-cost Wifi clouds over remote villages has run into obstacles as officials demand he use state-approved consultants. "What was supposed to be a cheap solution all of a sudden starts becoming expensive."

Industries which should benefit from Tanzania's membership of the East African Community and a southern African trade bloc struggle to compete. Unreliable electricity is a major gripe.

State power firm TANESCO is building new gas-fired plants but is mired in $250 million in arrears to suppliers built up over years. An international economist said this backlog "continues to provide a disincentive for further investment."

It casts a shadow over plans for a multibillion-dollar LNG plant to export gas. Simply building the plant would add two percentage points to economic growth, the central bank says.

But investors have already waited two years or more for a final decision on where to locate the plant.

Former official

Lowassa, running for the opposition UKAWA coalition, has drawn crowds to his rallies but also has a history with the CCM to explain. The 62-year-old quit as prime minister in 2008 over a corruption scandal, although he denied wrongdoing.

Lowassa has promised to review energy and mining contracts, winning approval from the public who complain that foreigners have received a better deal but unnerving some investors.

Outgoing President Jakaya Kikwete, who has served a maximum two terms, was seen as a steady hand but accused by some of indecision. Even Magafuli, 55, has criticized aspects of Kikwete's rule aiming to prove he can deliver change.

He has won public praise as works minister for sacking inefficient contractors and corrupt officials. His party has drawn up a detailed 235-page manifesto, addressing issues down to the village level, to show how citizens will benefit.

But opponents doubt Magufuli can make a difference when he is surrounded by the old party network. "You may be good, but if the people who are working with you are corrupt, the outcome is the same," said trader David Brasiousy.