January Makamba wants to be Tanzania’s next president and he’s running on his own terms. Ventures Africa speaks with the man who thinks his new approach to politics will put him in a strong position to improve Tanzania’s economic future.
VENTURES AFRICA – January Makamba might just be the world’s most unassuming potential president. At a time where politicians across the globe seek the limelight wherever they can find it, and many African “leaders” excel in bluster, Makamba’s low key, substance before style demeanour is not just refreshing, it is innovative. Starting in May 2015, when the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, of which he is a member, holds its primary elections, he will be pushing a new brand of youth-oriented, people-first politics that he believes will take him directly to Tanzania’s highest office. Makamba, who is six feet tall and lanky, with a clean-shaved head and thin, wire-framed glasses, appears more policy wonk than power broker. When we first met almost a year ago at the World Economic Forum, Africa, hosted at the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, Nigeria, Makamba was in fine form, relaxed in a suit without a tie, informally holding court with a small group of young African up-and-comers at the hotel’s large, octagonal pool. A fast-rising star on Tanzania’s political scene, Makamba was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2010 to represent his Bumbuli Constituency in the Lushoto District. He is also Tanzania’s Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology. Before holding elected office, Makamba joined the Tanzanian foreign service in 2003, working as a personal aid to Jakaya Kikwete, who was Foreign Minister at the time. When Kikwete won Tanzania’s presidential elections with a landslide victory in 2005, Makamba became one of his senior aides and his primary speechwriter. Makamba’s roles in government have placed him at the forefront of youth issues and at the nexus of communications, technology, entertainment and educational concerns in Tanzania. He is certain that this experience, a firm belief in good governance and transparency, along with his desire to bring these elements to a campaign that bypasses political power structures and appeals directly to the people using, among other things, new media and technology, should make him the best candidate to succeed his former boss President Kikwete. It does not hurt that in a country of 45 million, where the median age is 17, at the tender age of 41 he is likely the youngest candidate for higher national office. I spoke with January – as he requested I call him – at length about his campaign and what makes his candidacy so cutting edge.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ventures Africa (VA): I’ll just get right to the point. You’re one of the youngest candidates ever to run for office in Tanzania, an accomplishment in and of itself in our age-oriented societies. So how do you think your candidacy or your potential presidency is going to reshape the way that we think about politics here on the continent?
January Makamba (JM): First of all, as you know, we in Africa have constructed images and caricatures about presidents. We have in our minds how a president looks or should look and these images and caricatures have been very limiting as far as in broadening our perspective about the leadership in general. So, a person like me when he comes forward and marches – you are qualified and you have the right ideas – the question would be in the back of people’s minds, “Can really this guy do it? He looks young.” You get all these judgments on the basis of your age, and the basis of how you look. So, the number one thing that our candidacy will do is to demystify the presidency and to deconstruct the image of an African president that people have. By running a very serious campaign, because as you know anybody can run for president but we want a very serious campaign that will convey a very serious message about the need to change and deconstruct and expand our perspectives about leadership and images and symbolisms and so forth, I think that will inspire a lot of young people. And actually it has already inspired. I mean the mere fact that we have announced and we are actually doing very well has inspired some young people to say, “Wait a minute. Apparently we can do big things.” That is a success.
We’re going to run a very inspirational campaign, a campaign that will leverage technology to a greater extent. And when I talk about technology, I’m not talking about Twitter or Facebook or other social media, but SMS and radio so as to involve and have a conversation with everybody. It’s going to be very interactive. It’s not going to be sort of “speeching” that different kind of politicians do – you give your speech, you move to another rally. We’re going to have a dialogue. We’re going to have a conversation. And these young people who are going to be part of the campaign are going to feel empowered that they can actually speak to a person who is seeking national leadership, they can be heard, and they can actually make a president. I think that will be extremely powerful and motivating and we’ll get to a lot of these young people, some of them who have been tuning off. So, the manner of campaign will be innovative, inclusive to get everybody on board.
We feel that our generation has a proper grasp of what is going on, on the ground, what is going on in our country, and has the proper grasp about issues and how our future should look. More than anybody, we’re very competent talking about the future – more than the old guard who have been in politics for 40 years, who are only interested in self-preservation and are not interested in talking about the future. Obviously, we don’t have as much resources as other candidates have. We’re new to politics. We don’t have or rely on deep patronages that are paying us back to run the campaign. So, this is going to be more or less a start-up.
VA: Would you consider your candidacy a critique of politics as it is been played before?
JM: Absolutely. Without a doubt. Of course, progress has taken place in our countries. You can see and you can identify, point out areas in which progress has taken place, but that progress could have been faster, could have been bigger, if our politics were different. An expression of it, to be a bit more specific, is when I announced my candidacy for the party nomination, I did it early. As you know the ruling party here, Chama Cha Mapinduzi [Party of the Revolution] (CCM) is one of those liberation movements, a former socialist party similar to ZANUPF, ANC, FRELIMO, SWAPO and so on, in which to announce that you want to run is generally frowned upon. You have to wait for the party leaders to sit and elect a candidate. Our party opened the process in 1995 for people to vie for nomination, to contest. But there are still remnants of that culture of waiting to be asked to run. What I did was to boldly announce my intention to run and also said that people who want to be president, they should say it early so that they can be vetted by the general public, so they can say who they are, what they stand for, what are their values. By doing so, we actually moved a lot of the old guard to come out also. We have been successful, at least in that respect, in changing the way things were done. We have also written a book laying out a vision for Tanzania, with very specific and new and innovative policy ideas – something that has never been done before. Basically, we have caused, or forced if you will, a campaign on issues.
VA: You said you’re going to use technology in your campaign. How so? Are there examples of campaigns around the world that provide an idea of how you can leverage technology within the electoral process?
JM: Everybody mentions the Obama campaign as far as the use of digital media in reaching people. Obviously that’s the model, much as broadband is an issue in the continent and in our country. A lot of people are off grid, off broadband, but GSM is everywhere. That’s why we focus on SMS and radio. Closer to home is Kenya. In the 2013 campaign, the Kenyatta campaign really leveraged technology in a big way to reach young people. There are different ways of doing it, and each country has a different context and different profile of technology options.
VA: In our societies, the cult of personality in leadership or the cult of office is very strong. How do you expect younger voters to actually speak out or speak up and voice their opinions – especially contrary viewpoints?
JM: Part of the reason that that is difficult today is precisely what I’ve spoken about earlier, that leadership, the presidency have been elevated, that these people are inaccessible. You can’t reach them. You cannot tell them anything. They are super humans. We have managed to create an environment where we are, and continue to be, extremely accessible. A demonstration will be, for instance, my social media channels. I don’t use my social media channels to post propaganda or just schedules of my events. I talk to people back and forth. I respond. I dialogue. And I do even more of that offline. Some of the exchanges are not pretty because people are angry about some things in our country and have strong opinions about them, but you also get a lot of insight from these exchanges. Also we’re going to organise a lot of university, city square and town hall, conversations and dialogues. Now, as a political leader, as a candidate, you have to be able to send the message that you are accessible, and people can be empowered to speak to you and offer contrary opinions freely. We have managed to do that. We have started to do that and it’s working quite well.
VA: Let’s move on to your economic platform. Tanzania has enjoyed a decent period of 7 percent per annum GDP growth. You have oil and gas finds in commercially exploitable quantities. In addition, there is a rebirth of your manufacturing sector. What do you have to offer Tanzania economically, and how will you keep the country on track in a world of increasing economic uncertainty?
JM: To begin with, people’s income will be a huge priority. As much as the growth numbers are impressive, they have not translated into people’s ability to save, to spend, to invest. The man on the street still struggles to bring the kids to school, to pay for their school fees, to start a business and so forth. We will focus heavily, heavily, on people’s incomes. The way to do that is to modernise and transform activities that the majority of them do. In that respect, in this country, nothing is more important than agriculture. Agriculture employs about 70 percent of the people, but it’s very unproductive. Therefore we need to transform it. I know that every politician uses that phrase, “I want to transform agriculture,” but we have a very specific plan to do that – the entirety of agricultural development, from input availability and distribution, skilled farmers, crop marketing, value addition and all these things that make the totality of agricultural development.
Two, is small and medium enterprises. Everywhere you go across the country, almost everywhere you pass there is business. Somebody is selling something or is trying to sell something. These businesses are extremely ineffective. If you look at Tanzania, the profile of businesses, 86 percent of them hire less than two people because they are small. They are ineffective and seven out of 10 die within the first six months. SME development and empowerment will be critical. If in Tanzania, for instance, only 20 percent of SMEs hire an additional one person, we will resolve the job situation. We’re going to put up a fund to help these businesses access capital. We have these social security funds. They have a lot of money and if you look at where they invest the money, they mostly invest in projects that have little impact on the general social economic wellbeing of poor Tanzanians. [We want to] put together the resources of social security funds to create a super fund for SMEs.
Another is manufacturing: We have about a million people, aged between 15 to 24 who are entering job markets every year – 90 percent of them do not have education beyond secondary [school]. We have a lot of young people who are unskilled, who are entering job markets, so industries in manufacturing would be an opportunity pick up young people with minimal skills. Tanzania is a cotton growing country, but we are exporting 70 percent of our cotton. We will reverse and use 80 percent of our cotton here with 18 new textile mills which would take a lot of unskilled people into employment.
Obviously, the economy has to be served by certain key sectors. If energy is unreliable, if it’s expensive, everything becomes difficult. [Everything becomes] expensive if transport infrastructure does not exist. There’s a lot of money and different new ways to do transport infrastructure these days. The private sector has a huge role to play. ICT and telecoms serves almost every sector, so we have to invest a lot in broadband infrastructure and the like. Governance in general, stronger institutions, serves the economy, serve businesses, so we’re going to make sure that we’re going to reduce the cost of business by having a responsive transparent, clean government as well.
VA: Politicians often use that phrase, “stronger institutions.” What is a stronger institution in the Tanzanian context? How do you actually build that stronger institution?
JM: There was a study that took place in the 1970s in Italy by Robert Putnam called, “Making Democracy Work”. It’s a longitudinal study in which they look at Italy’s decision to decentralise and divide Italy into regional governments. They established the same institutions across each region. After 20 years they looked at how these institutions functioned, and as you know Northern Italy is entirely different from Southern Italy, and what they found is that these same institutions operated very differently in each region. They became stronger in Northern Italy than in Southern Italy and they attributed this to the social capital, the leadership, the makeup of the society. The institution is as good as the people who occupy it. The institution normally takes on the behaviour of people who occupy it. When we talk about strong institutions, the number one thing would be ethics – ethics of public servants who occupy these institutions. The institution design is very easy. We know the best way to structure a judiciary. We know the best way to organise anti-corruption institutions and their architecture. We know that we need to have the Public Protector and its responsibilities. We know that the police force has to be independent. The institution design is the easy part, but if you want to be successful as a political leader, you have to send a very strong message not just by words, but by the way you conduct yourself, the way you live, that you don’t tolerate any unethical behaviour. Institutions can be strong if they’re occupied by people who are willing to make them strong. My view is that it starts with the people. It starts with society. It has nothing to do with the institution design or just a desire or a wish to have strong institutions. They also have to have legitimacy – meaning that they must be trustworthy, they must be fair. That’s the way to make them strong.
VA: Who are the leaders or the people that have influenced how you see yourself as a leader?
JM: As a Tanzanian, of course Julius Nyerere would be absolutely number one for a couple of reasons. One is the humility and the power that humility that can bring forth – humility and simplicity. This teaches us that authority and respect is not brought by pomp. It’s not about pomposity. It comes with humility and modesty. Second, for his intellectual heft and the purity of intentions. Of course there were mistakes that he did and he was big enough to admit them. He’s a leader that we all want to emulate. Another would be a former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. He’s Swedish. I stumbled on his biography and I was so fascinated, I started to study his life. If you want an example of commitment to public service, almost religious commitment to public service, he would be the one. Of course he was not a politician, he was an international civil servant but it’s the same level of commitment to the task at hand.
VA: What does your former boss and mentor President Jakaya Kikwete think of your candidacy?
JM: Of course there are some private conversations that I cannot talk about. He is openly supportive of a younger generation of leadership. I can talk about what he said in public. 14 October 2014 – this is normally Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere Day – he said he wants to be succeeded by a young president. He said that the profile of Tanzania’s demographics is an indicator that if we make a different choice we will not move ahead. People read into his words they way they wanted to read it, some calling it an endorsement.
VA: You’ve said before that you support the idea of a borderless Africa. What do you mean by this and how is this beneficial to the continent?
JM: The history of Pan-Africanism goes very far back in the 19th century. When our countries were fighting for independence, Pan-Africanism was an important ingredient toward the struggle – that we want to be free so we can be one, so we can collectively pursue our aspirations. Disappointingly, the expression of that dream ended just being a continental organisation which [was the] OAU [now the African Union] back then. This is not good enough. You recall the debates during that time about the approach towards African unity? You had the Casablanca Camp, you have Monrovia Camp, each one with different views about how Africa should unite. The group that won is the one that had decided to have a regional approach, regional economic integration as a building block towards Africa’s unity. People, of course, are sensitive about political unity. There are certain things that we can’t do if people are so protective about sovereignty, about flag, about national anthem. That’s fine. But there are certain things that we can easily do. Let’s say no Visa. What’s the problem with that? We already have countries here in Africa that you travel without Visa. It makes life so easy and slowly you build, you remove these prejudices between and among African people, African countries. I’m quite impressed by the new generation of Africans, our generation, you and I. I’m sure you have very close friends across African countries and you don’t even think for a second that they are from Ghana or they are from South Africa, you just get along very well. You are brothers. You are sisters and collaborators across the continent. I see a revival of Pan- Africanism among young Africans. You just need a political leadership to tap into that. Africa’s unity, unity among Africans, is as important now as it was during liberation struggle.
VA: How do you intend to shape the way Tanzania deals with the rest of the world? How do you plan to bolster the continent’s image in the foreign arena?
JM: Tanzania, in the past, used to punch above its weight. We used to have this moral leadership on issues of the day, human rights, independence, liberation, self-determination. That must continue. We took principled stances on the critical issues back in the days. For instance, Tanzania was seen as pro-Soviet during the Cold War, but we condemned the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in the strongest terms and we condemned the US invasion in Grenada. We used to be a country that everybody respected because of the positions that we took. I think it’s important to be able to do that because this notion that you need help from a particular country so you have to go along or be quiet with everything that this country does, this is a very wrong position. In fact, you get more respect if you’re principled, and if you need help, you can get help while you are principled. So, it’s just a different outlook of political leadership on what really gives the country credibility. Tanzania is going to bring back those days. About Africa and how it’s treated in the world, I think we are also to blame. The fact that we could not mobilise a meaningful unity on key issues and build economic power to stand strong, we are going to be pushed around. I believe that the new generation of leadership and the new Africans who are not only in politics, but in business and civil society, in journalism, who know more about the world, they know no less than their peers in America, in Europe. There’s no reason to actually be this inferior because the asymmetry of information between me and a politician across the world is non-existent. We know exactly what is going on. We know what needs to be done. We need to able to refuse certain things, to refuse to be pushed around, and to have a little bit of pride. It’s how we behave that determines how you’re treated.
Read this and other stories in print in the Ventures Innovation Issue due out in late May.