By Jared Jeffery, Political Analyst, NKC African Economics

Repression under President John Magufuli has increased considerably.

Opposition politicians have been routinely arrested and their activities banned; journalists have been intimidated and their papers or radio stations shut; citizens have been prosecuted for insulting the president and must now practice self-censorship on social media; rights activists have been detained; foreign companies have been subjected to threats of nationalisation and the rules they operate under have changed without consultation or recourse to international arbitration; the Zanzibar election results of 2015 were annulled without proof given of significant procedural abnormalities and the ruling party was reinstalled after an opposition boycott.

The trend has been clear from early on and there does not appear to be any let up. The clampdown threatens to create an equal and opposite reaction should citizens be mobilised against the authoritarian turn. But with the opposition, media and rights activists seemingly neutralised, who will direct the mobilisation and spur such a reaction? That is where the church and religious leaders could become significant.

Tanzanians are a pious people and trust in religious leaders far outstrips trust in political institutions or traditional leaders, as can be seen in the graph. Magufuli himself is a religious man (controversial Nigerian preacher TB Joshua was an honoured guest at his inauguration and reportedly encouraged his presidential ambitions), and we believe this religiosity informs his governing style and sense of purpose. Thus, the church/mosque holds a lot of sway with the common man and the political elite.

Recently, religious leaders have shown they are not pleased with the route the government has taken.

Two major churches (Catholic and Lutheran) have in recent months issued unambiguous condemnations of the crackdown on the opposition. In February, the Catholic church released a letter in which it criticised the ban on political activities and demonstrations and called it unconstitutional, according to local newspaper The Citizen.

In its Easter message, the Lutheran church reiterated most of the Catholic church’s concerns. “There are signs of dwindling freedom of expression, assembly and right to information… There is a fear that even the right to worship is in danger,” the letter, signed by 27 Lutheran bishops, stated.

The church has been given good reason to worry. A Lutheran pastor, Fred Njama, was arrested just over two weeks ago on charges of incitement after preparing a service that detailed challenges facing the country – including suppression of civil freedoms. The government confiscated all copies of the church’s criticism and ordered those with copies to surrender them to authorities.

Why is the churches’ criticism significant? On March 27, six senior members of the Democracy and Progress Party (Chadema), including Chairman Freeman Mbowe, were charged with sedition, incitement to violence and unlawful assembly. The arrest of opposition leaders has become routine and has not been a cause for significant protest among citizens. This has highlighted just how effective Mr Magufuli’s clampdown has been. However, the church is another matter altogether.

The president may be able to cast Chadema as opportunistic troublemakers getting in the way of development and justify his actions as being in the best interests of the nation, but the same tactic will not work with the church.

On a personal level, Magufuli may be deeply conflicted to find himself cast on the ‘wrong side’. In May last year he told congregants at both the Christ the King Cathedral (Catholic) and Moshi Diocese of the Lutheran church (two sermons on the same day): “What we do [in fighting evils] aims at straightening the country to facilitate fast, real economic development. I want you to believe that I’m doing this on your behalf, the presidency is yours… I am trying to act in the will of God… as the country, we had reached a terrible point, we were heading to a disastrous end… Maybe the country was waiting for somebody like Magufuli to cleanse it.”

Today, it would be very difficult for him to stand in a church and say the same, and that is both a personal blow and possibly a blow to his legitimacy.

The question now is whether he will reform his ways and ease off the repression, or attempt to silence the church.

If the former, we can expect the opposition to gain the space needed to ramp up its campaign painting the government as anti-democratic and to push for constitutional reform.

If the latter, we can expect the opposition to receive help from the church which will change many Tanzanian’s perceptions of the ruling party before the 2020 elections.

Either way, Magufuli and the ruling party may be weakened.