THE World Bank now ranks Tanzania a lacklustre 131st in the world, dropping steadily down the league as a place for doing business. Neighbouring Uganda comes in at 112th, with Kenya in 95th place. Well ahead of the region's big three, at 67th, is little Rwanda, a relatively late aspirant as a serious competitor. Tanzania is the laggard in a poor field. A local brand of socialism first promoted by Tanzania's founding president, Julius Nyerere, helped give its 44m people a sense of unity but failed to equip them for the 21st century. The country still feels elephantine, its infrastructure is rickety, its electricity patchy, most of its roads unpaved and potholed.
President Jakaya Kikwete knows how it is. On a recent trip he had to change cars twice in a day when they broke down on rutted roads. He used the waiting time to chat to locals. That may help him in elections due in October. He will probably run again for another five-year term. If he does, he is almost certain to win.
His party, the Chama cha Mapinduzi (Party of the Revolution), has run Tanzania in various guises since the country was founded in 1964 after Tanganyika on the mainland merged with the island of Zanzibar. The ruling party has a small reform-minded wing and a much larger body that harks back to old-style liberation movements. Mr Kikwete stands carefully in the middle. He recently warmly welcomed in Dar es Salaam both Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the Swiss-based World Economic Forum, a club of capitalists.
Mr Kikwete may use a second term to try to integrate Tanzania and its neighbours into a revived East African Community. With rural voters behind him, he can afford to be tough on groups that might threaten him. He has denounced recent attempts by the trade unions to strike for a higher minimum wage. He may also have persuaded the president of autonomous Zanzibar, Amani Karume, to share power with the island's opposition. That should head off violence in the election run-up.
Tanzania's economy is ticking along. This year it may grow by 6%. Inflation is edging down. Foreigners still help pay for health care and education. Dar es Salaam's once-chaotic port is a bit better run. High gold prices boost the budget. New laws to end tax breaks for mining companies and to raise royalties may bring in more cash. Tanzania has plenty of water and abundant farmland still to be developed.
Mr Kikwete has at least tried to give the appearance of curbing corruption. A Bank of Tanzania official was acquitted of puffing up the cost of building a bank from $73m to $357m but found guilty of "abusing power". Visiting businessmen, however, say they are still deterred by red tape, a weak legal system and a lack of skilled labour. Above all, they say, Tanzanians seem to lack a sense of urgency.