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Long Read: Tanzanian Business Magnate Rostam Aziz Shunning Gutter Politics

By A correspondent

In Igunga they still have fond memories of their former MP for 17 years, Rostam Azizi, who resigned from politics in 2011, following the 2010 elections, in protest of what he called siasa za uchwara or gutter politics. He proclaimed to an emotional crowd that he couldn’t stoop so low to the level of his political opponents and the only way out for him was to quit politics and pursue his business interests full time.

Gray haired Rashid Mashiba, now 82, recalls that day, 13th July 2011, when their MP bid them an emotional farewell.  For the thousands who elected him as their representative he was also a son and a brother. At 26 years old in 1994, Rostam Aziz was the youngest MP in the parliament of Tanzania when he first took that office.  This fondness is also understandable when you consider that Mashibe’s ward for instance, had no school, health centre nor paved road prior to Mr. Aziz becoming the MP. However a mere five years after he was elected the services were provided.

“So much had happened but there was still much to do and we were all looking forward to continue that journey together. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be,” says the old man.

On the wall of his sitting room a poster of younger smiling Rostam still hangs, a reminder of better times for the community, perhaps of what could have been as well.

Igunga was the most backward district in the country in 1994 when Mr. Rostam took over; with only one secondary school, several primary schools but no safe drinking water. There was one missionary hospital, two clinic and no paved roads or electricity and factories.

By the time he was leaving, Igunga had moved to the top to become one of the most developed districts in the country with 42 secondary schools and over 100 primary schools, over 100 dispensaries, a modern district hospital, safe drinking water for every village, over 40 dams for livestock, cotton ginneries and oil mills. There was electricity and women were empowered through micro loans.

The Igunga District chairman, Mr. Abobakary remembers accompanying Mr. Azizi to villages for meetings as part of his monthly tours of the constituency.

“He was emotionally connected with the people not only in his constituency but in Tabora region as a whole” he says.

Mr. Abobakary recalls that one sunny weekend, Mr. Azizi set off to a village called Hendesh in rural Igunga. After the MP had finished addressing the crowd that had gathered, an old man raised his hand and started lamenting that Mr. Azizi was disrespectful, to everyone’s shock.

Then the old man went ahead and said that he had grown up with Mr. Azizi’s grandfather Abdulrasool  whom he described as a very fair man and that people around that time respected him and brought their disputes to him to settle. Then the old man explained that he had written a letter to Rostam several times for three months asking him to come pick up his goat, but he hadn’t come to pick it up.

“That explains the extent of the relationship Mr. Azizi had with his people. It is hard to explain it to anybody who didn’t see it,” recalls Abobokary.

Video footage available online from 2011 shows Mr. Azizi explaining to his constituency that it was better for him to step down from politics. However, the crowd, carrying posters and chanting, try as much as possible to avoid that inevitable ending. Some are holding their heads in their hands. Yet in the end Mr. Azizi announces his decision and sticks to it despite pleas from the people there to reconsider.

At around the same time all members of the Central Committee and the Secretariat of ruling CCM agreed unanimously to resign. The aim was to give the Chairman, then President Jakaya Kikwete, an opportunity to start with a clean slate, to make a change of direction for the party following the less than satisfactory victory margins for the party in the 2010 elections.

Yet this logic is hard to understand for those in Igunga some 700km away from the power capital Dar es Salaam where all these decisions were taking place. To them, Mr. Azizi meant more than paved roads and hospitals but also a means out of the cycle of poverty that had before seemed impossible to escape. According to a poverty assessment by the World Bank, family background, including education level of your parents and number of siblings, greatly determines your chances of  economic success in Tanzania.

Thirty-two years old Charles George is a graduate in economics from the University of Dar es Salaam. But soon after he finished O-Levels at Igunga Secondary School in 2000, like many other boys in Igunga, his parents couldn’t afford to take him any further up the education ladder.  They were peasants and could hardly afford a meal a day. However, as he heard about an initiative developed by Mr. Azizi to support students from poor families who had performed well in secondary education but couldn’t afford to proceed to higher levels he quickly signed up. George says he had all his education and health costs paid for until he reached university. He now works as a finance manager at an advertising company in Dar es Salaam.

“I have put several of my siblings through school and I regularly send money home so that they are able to live well,” says the father of two.

According to the report by the World Bank released in 2015, the number of poor, particularly in rural areas, is still high; about 12 million people, among them 10 million in the rural sector, continue to live in poverty. Heads of households with less education and a large number of children and who are engaged in subsistence agriculture and living in communities lacking infrastructure are likely to be the poorest and many of them will pass on their poverty to their offspring.

Mr. Rostam had not only come up with an education initiative but also some other initiatives in health which mainly targeted supporting elderly people who couldn’t afford health care services and were taken abroad for medical attention. The former Igunga district chairman, Abubakar Shaaban says that Mr. Azizi firmly believed in education as a tool of helping poor people fight poverty and through the initiatives has helped lift families out of extreme poverty. The education initiative benefited over 200 students and the health insurance for elderly people benefitted over 600 elderly people.

“The support that I received from people was enormous; everybody joined me in ensuring that we build a strong constituency together with the interests of the people of Igunga at heart. I look back and feel proud,” says Mr. Azizi during an interview.

One of hallmarks of his tenure as the MP for Igunga was the pioneering of the health care for every household. So successful was the project that Kenya and Uganda authorities visited Igunga to study the scheme so that they could roll it out in their countries. As a result of the project, there was no shortage of medicine again in the area and ambulances were stationed all corners of the district to assist the sick to the nearest medical facilities.

“President Benjamin Mkapa spoke fondly of the scheme most of the time I had an opportunity to speak with him,” recalls Mr. Azizi.

Towards the mid 1990s when Mr. Azizi became an MP there were frequent fights, and sometimes deaths, between Watatulu and Sukuma tribesmen who fought over grazing land and water. This became among the first challenges that the young MP tackled. He provided sources of water and worked together with the district council to plan properly how the grazing land should be used in the area. Later after the dispute had ended, the Watatulu elders who are mainly animist took Mr. Azizi to their god under a big tree to pray for him.

“It was a huge symbol and it helped transform the Watatulu. The tribe now has schools and hospitals. It was unheard of at the time,” recalls Abobakary.

When the government felt that Igunga District was too big and wanted to divide it into two, residents fearing that they wouldn’t be under Mr. Azizi’s constituency anymore, walked on foot for hours to Tabora Regional Headquarters to protest the decision. It was put on hold for as long as he was the MP.

It was not easy for a CCM man to transform Igunga. Tabora is familiar with fierce politics especially of the opposing kind as most of the successful politicians in the country have their origins in the region.  The likes of Chief Said Fundikira, cited as father of the opposition, who quit TANU in protest of its intention to be the single ruling party in the country, Christopher Kassanga Tumbo, James Mapalala and Kasela Bantu who helped start the first opposition politics and Prof Ibrahim Lipumba who has been at the helm of modern opposition politics as chairman of the strong opposition party CUF all originated from Tabora. Tabora being a hub of the opposition made it particularly hard to ensure that CCM maintained strong political control in the area.

“When I was elected member of the National Executive Council of CCM representing Tabora Region, one constituency out of four was in the hands of the opposition but we didn’t lose a single constituency to the opposition in 2010. It was a victory we earned because everybody felt that we could change their lives,” Mr. Azizi recalls.

Yet at a national level, the 2010 general elections were a sobering moment for most within CCM. While the results did see the party back to power through winning by a comfortable margin in the presidential, parliamentary and civic elections in Tanzania Mainland and Zanzibar, especially for a second term administration,  the comparatively lower level of victory compared to the past indicated signs of citizens reduced confidence in the ruling party.

Within the ranks of CCM it was hard to ignore the decline of presidential ballots from more than 80 percent in 2005 to only 61 percent in 2010. The party had lost 20 percent of votes in a period of only five years. There was a clearly a need for reflection and redirecting of the party. It is partly for this reason that Mr. Aziz and others stepped down as members of NEC and the Central Committee.

But there was also growing factionalism within the party and some were resorting to tarnish the images of fellow party members they considered a threat to their interests. Following the less than expected performance, a witch hunt was ensuing in which it appeared Mr. Aziz was one of the targets despite the above average performance in Igunga. Mr. Aziz was both a politician and a business man but of the two he was a businessman first. At the moment when it seemed that remaining in politics meant sacrificing his future as a successful businessman he chose to quit politics. It was a painful choice but it was one that he had to do.

But the antagonism had started even earlier. Mr. Azizi was instrumental in pushing a motion that prevented President Salmin Amour of Zanzibar from vying for a third term which won the support of 50 MPs. At around the same time he pushed for another controversial motion seeking the release of 42 prisoners in Zanzibar, including the secretary general of the Zanzibar main opposition party, the Civic United Front (CUF) Seif Hamad Sharrif.  Mr. Sharrif had been dropped from the Revolutionary Council and the position of Chief Minister and thrown into jail after it was alleged that he had been found with secret documents. Again, the 50 CCM MPs backed the motion and eventually the prisoners were released. There is also a consensus within CCM inner circles that Mr. Azizi greatly helped put president Jakaya Kikwete into power in 2005 with the unprecedented victory of 82 percent of the national vote under multiparty politics.

Such unprecedented successes, while casting Mr. Azizi as a bold politician who saw further than the rest, also made him some powerful enemies.

“It made me a target of the opposition as they saw me as an enemy but it also didn’t endear me to the factions in CCM who backed the defeated candidates. They also saw me as a threat to their ambition for the 2015 election,” Mr. Azizi recalls.

At around that time Mr. Azizi met with his constituency. As the old and young gathered, he felt it was important for him to clarify some of the misinformation that was circulating in the media. After he had finished explaining, an elderly man who sat at the back listening attentively rose up to talk. He said that Mr. Azizi shouldn’t be worried about the mud slinging because those in Igunga understood that people would throw stones at a Mango tree because it has mangoes but not at mchongoma but it only had thorns.

 “There was so much to do still but it was clearly going to be impossible to accomplish anything in the toxic environment that existed then,” he says.

The Azizi family is an old and prominent family that migrated to Tabora in Tanzania from Persia in 1852. In the 1960s the family had vast agriculture interests in Shinyanga and traded in agricultural produce, livestock and trading between Tabora, Mwanza and Kagera. Mr. Azizi’s father jointly owned a farm with the firebrand Prime Minister Edward Moringe Sokoine but Prime Minister Sokoine opted out of the business venture soon after Arusha declaration was passed to introduce nationalization.

 The Azizis were defiant and the father was thrown into jail twice. He passed on this defiance and boldness to his son.

Mr. Azizi got his start in his family’s trading business and then branched out on his own. According to Forbes magazine he owns a substantial stake of Vodacom Tanzania, the country’s largest mobile phone company, with 10 million subscribers. He also has interests in mining, a contract mining firm in Tanzania, and real estate in Dubai and Oman. In 2015 he made it on the Forbes list of Africa’s 50 Richest appearing at number 25 and has been referred to as Tanzania’s richest man.