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John Magufuli: Tanzania’s rising star

News and Analysis

John Magufuli: Tanzania’s rising star

The election of John Magufuli, Tanzania’s ‘Bulldozer’ (pictured right) as president two years ago has turned this East African country upside down. He has set out to vigorously clean up corruption and laziness, both in government and the private sphere, and the effects in terms of efficiency and lower costs are already making a difference. This aspect, added to the country’s healthy growth rate and the prospect of a gas bonanza, goes into making Tanzania Africa’s current rising star. In this composite cover story, NA Editor Anver Versi, and Erick Kabendera from Tanzania, analyse the ‘Magufuli magic’ while Neil Ford discusses the economy and society.

The Magufuli magic

In the 1970s, responding to taunts from socialist Tanzanians that neighbouring, capitalist Kenya was a ‘dog eat dog’ society, the Kenyans came back with ‘Tanzania is a man eat nothing society!’

They were not far wrong. Tanzania’s nationalised industries and collectivised farms failed miserably to meet demand and led to empty shops as shortages of virtually all products, including essentials, began to bite.

This has become a dim and distant memory in the country today. The shops are overflowing, prices are some of the lowest in the East African region and there is a sense of optimism and wellbeing. 

The transformation has been brought about by successive presidents who succeeded the iconic Julius Nyerere. Most impressively, all this has been done without major social upheavals or sudden and drastic changes of policy. All presidents have belonged to the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and succession has, at least in public, been smooth.

However, although the middle class, including public servants and business people, have done well, the majority are still relatively poor and the income gap between the top and bottom earners is large. 

But while the party and government machinery has transitioned from socialism to capitalism without too many hiccups, the characters, personalities and ruling styles of the individual presidents have been strikingly different. (See ‘Tanzania’s past presidents’, page 20.)

Each leader has stepped in at particular tipping points and by force of personality and style, moved the country along a notch or two. There is a strong belief that Magufuli, ‘The Bulldozer’, is the right person to now take the country decisively forward and raise the living standards of the poor.

But even by Tanzania’s standards of electing idiosyncratic leaders, John Pombe Magufuli, 57, is something else. He claims that he is not a politician and therefore does not have to act like one or say what he is expected to say. Instead, he speaks his mind – sometimes abrasively – and has a job of work to do righting the wrongs that have crept into the body politic.

Not much is known about his childhood. His father, John Joseph Magufuli died when he was still young and he was brought up by his grandfather and his mother, who is still alive.

The only publicly available picture of Magufuli as a child shows him seated on a bench when he was about six years old, with two elderly men, one of whom is said to be his grandfather. Magufuli is wearing a seemingly stained T-shirt and shorts, with his dusty legs dangling from a chair.

Magufuli has said in the past that he was born in extreme poverty, and therefore it was his role to ensure his presidency focused on fighting poverty and corruption.

An unlikely candidate

In many ways he was perhaps the least likely among the shortlist to win the approval of the CCM party as their presidential candidate for the 2015 elections. Until the run-up to the elections, he was hardly known outside government circles except as a very hard-working technocrat who, as minister of works, had played a critical role in building the country’s 15,000km of paved roads. 

He tended to keep a low profile, eschewing acclaim for successful projects, shunning  foreign visits unlike most of his peers and on occasion, speaking out bluntly and directly.

He threatened to resign on one occasion because he objected to the meagre budgetary allocation for his portfolio and a colleague recalls that at one point, “he told off President Jakaya Kikwete [his predecessor]…[saying] that he would have fired everybody in the ministry of finance, including sweepers, because he felt they were lazy and always delayed releasing money allocated to different ministries.”

The strongest candidate vying for the party’s presidential nomination had been former prime minister, Edward Lowassa who had resigned from government in 2008 following a scandal in which a US-based electricity firm had failed to deliver 100MW of emergency power during a power crisis despite being given a $100,000 per day contract.

Lowassa, who had been preparing for the presidency for 20 years, remained powerful and his campaign machinery attracted a lot of support from mostly the youth, who saw him as having the right credentials to fight endemic poverty and unemployment and believed he had been wrongly implicated in the scandal.

However, the party, worried that the taint of scandal, deserved or not, would reduce their chances of victory in the elections, eliminated him at the early stages. Lowassa defected to the main opposition party, Chadema, paving the way for Magufuli, former UN Deputy Secretary General, Asha-Rose Migiro and AU Ambassador to the US, Amina Salum Ali, to battle it out for the nomination. 

Insiders say that the process had degenerated into chaos and it was the former president, Benjamin Mkapa who as a senior party stalwart, broke the stalemate by throwing his weight behind Magufuli, since he was not associated with any of the powerful factions within the party.

The fact that he had never been part of the CCM establishment and had never served in any party position, unlike all the previous presidents, was held against him by his critics. Absalom Kibanda, senior editor and political commentator says: “The fear was that the new president, who would ultimately become the party chairman, would lead the party to its downfall because it is a large institution and its new leader has to have been brought up in the party and to understand its traditions.” 

Nevertheless, Mkapa, Kikwete and other party leaders who believed in the ideals of the founding President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, of modesty and a people-centred presidency, felt that Magufuli was the right candidate, who would revive the party and take it back to its origins, focusing on improving issues that directly impact poor people.

In the elections held in October 2015, Magufuli held off a strong challenge from Lowassa and received 58% of the vote. His running mate, Samia Suluhu, was also declared vice president-elect. He was sworn in on 5 November 2015.

The big question now was what sort of leader Magufuli would make.

The Bulldozer swings his scythe 

The answer was not long in coming. Right from the word go, he not only set out to  make good his election pledges, he went further – to the delight of the masses, but growing concern among the establishment. 

He did the unthinkable – he cancelled Independence Day celebrations and all the extravagant expenses government traditionally splurged out. Instead, he wanted the day spent on street cleaning and enthusiastically participated, emulating Rwanda’s President Kagame. 

He slashed the budget for the usually opulent opening of parliament by almost 90% and demanded that the money saved be spent on purchasing hospital beds and on roadworks.

He cancelled foreign travel for government officials and put a stop to the purchase of first-class tickets. He decreed that henceforth, government meetings would be held in state buildings rather than in expensive hotels.

He trimmed down a delegation of 50 set to tour Commonwealth countries to just four.

A month after taking office, he finally announced his cabinet, making up 19 ministries. It had 11 fewer ministries than the previous government; some were merged to save money. 

He publicly warned those selected as ministers and other government functionaries that he would not tolerate corruption, laziness or excessive bureaucracy. He told them they should expect nothing more than to work tirelessly to serve the people of the country alongside him.

He made it very clear that the gravy train had come to an end. Government posting no longer meant a life of ease, privilege and the opportunity to make money. It meant hard work, motivated by nothing more than a fierce desire to serve the public – as politicians routinely promised but had no intention of delivering.

But he was not finished yet. He made surprise raids at government offices to see for himself who was at their desks, who was absent and who had used the well-worn trick of leaving their jackets on the chairs to indicate they had just stepped out for a moment when in fact they may have been gone weeks.

He had warned everybody to take notice of what he had said in terms of delivery, efficiency and honesty. No more warnings were issued.  Over his first three months in office, on average, he fired at least one senior civil servant a day.

Most civil servants would be fired in a dramatic fashion without mentioning their wrongdoing – and some of them decided to sue the government in court. 

The public watched disbelievingly as operation ‘squeezing the boil’, as they dubbed it, went into full swing and the former sacrosanct civil servants – ‘the un-dismissibles’ – were summarily fired, sometimes in groups. Magufuli’s popularity continued to rise as civil servants scrambled to avoid the scythe. 

Even the former chief secretary, Ombeni Sefue, who had the unenviable task of announcing the dismissals, could not escape the chop: He was also fired unexpectedly, a day after he had just announced the dismissal of another employee. 

While he was busy ‘squeezing the boil’ of incompetence and corruption, Magufuli and his team also rooted out over 10,000 ‘ghost workers’ from various government departments. A nationwide fraud audit had discovered that $2m a month was going to pay the non-xistent workers. 

The swinging blade did not stop there. An investigation into the use of forged certificates among government employees led to the firing of more than 10,000 civil servants. Over 400,000 academic certificates were verified. 

Minister of State in the President’s Office, Angellah Kairuki, says it was the first time in the history of the civil service that such a massive verification exercise has been conducted. However, political appointees such as ministers, regional and district commissioners have been spared of the investigation since they had not been appointed based on professional skills but on leadership and other qualities. 

The public servants found to have fake certificates were ordered to resign voluntarily or else they would face prosecution for the crime, which is punishable for up to seven years in jail.

The backlash

The decision was criticised by the Tanganyika Law Society which advised the fired workers to sue the government in court.

The society also criticised the government’s decision to exempt political appointees from having their academic certificates scrutinised, accusing President Magufuli of trying to protect some controversial officials, such as Dar es Salaam regional commissioner, Paul Makonda.

However, President Magufuli responded saying he would proceed without paying attention to the critics because the president was the appointing authority with the final say about everything.

“I am a confident president who knows what he is doing. Nobody tells me what to do because I am in charge of the fate of all Tanzanians. I decide who should be given which job and nobody can question my decision. I call upon Paul Makonda to continue doing his work,” he said.

Despite the president’s great popularity with the masses, especially when he first took office, his blunt leadership style, sometimes controversial statements and impromptu decisions, mostly during public rallies, have been criticised, mostly by the opposition and also, increasingly by the lay public. For example, he urged parents to have more children because the government was providing free secondary school education, but did not spell out how the largely poor parents would be able to support even larger families.

In a country like Tanzania with its multitude of tribes (over 130), religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism – and traditional beliefs, the president plays a very important role beyond his official duties. He is expected to attend important funerals to console the mourners, major weddings and several other functions.

In this context, he came under fire for failing to travel to the northern town of Kagera where 11 people had died and 192 injured following an earthquake. His response to the afflicted, who said that as a result of drought they had nothing to eat, shocked many. He asked them if they expected him to cook food for them.

The National Muslim Council of Tanzania (Bakwata) has accused him of deliberately kicking out Muslims from senior government positions and allocating key positions in his government to members of his tribe.

Sheikh Khalifa Said of Bakwata has provided statistics (which the government hasn’t challenged) showing that only one Muslim was hired for 10 positions Muslims were fired from. 

“We have done research and established that President Magufuli has appointed 19 chairpersons for boards of public corporations but only one was Muslim. Only 16 regional administrative officers were Muslims while [the] non-Muslims number 137,” according to Sheikh Khalifa.

However, the government has refused to respond to the allegations on the basis that it is a taboo to discussion religious issues in a country which has an almost equal number of Muslims and Christians, saying that such sentiments could trigger sectarian violence.

Magufuli balance sheet

Despite such sentiments, President Magufuli remains hugely popular. Policies such as free secondary education, free health care for elderly people, tax collection reforms and giving the war on drugs serious attention have all made him popular, especially among the ordinary people who live in rural areas, who see him as their saviour.

President Magufuli has pointed out that the government had been in a shambles and the reforms he is making have made the establishment unhappy and he feels that his life is in danger. He has therefore called on the citizens to pray for him so that he can continue serving them.   

His appeal has generated a warm response with pastors across the country holding public prayers for president’s safety, while others describe him as being sent from God to rescue the poor from extreme poverty.

However, middle-class and upper-class Tanzanians are not impressed. They see the president as anti-middle class, out to harm their interests despite the fact they are the country’s biggest tax payers and job creators.

Magufuli rarely refers to the middle class in most of his speeches. However, he has repeatedly said that he is determined to make Tanzanians whose lives are so comfortable that “they are in heaven… live like Satan”, because, he claims, their prosperity has come at the expense of the poor.

That said, the majority of the public has supported the firing of civil servants because service delivery has dramatically improved in most government offices. However, the situation has created a sense of fear among civil servants who feel that they might have made decisions which didn’t please the president.

The ban on foreign travel, for example, helped the government save at least $429.5m between November 2015 and November 2016.

A senior diplomat in Tanzania says that the majority of civil servants now show up for work while in the past, many were busy attending seminars, and rarely had time to stay in office and do the work. “In the past, everybody would be away, while now everybody is available but unable to make a decision, for fear that they will be questioned about why they made certain decisions and lose their jobs. Even senior civil servants would tell you that they have to wait for directives or consult the higher office [now], meaning state house. It is like a one-man-show government,” the diplomat says.  

The opposition have described President Magufuli as ‘a dictator’ because they believe that the democratic space shrank when Magufuli banned political rallies for the opposition politicians and live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings.

Tundu Lissu, chief whip of the main opposition party, Chadema, said it was unprecedented in the modern history of the country to have a president who was didn’t like to be criticised, calling him ‘a petty dictator’. Lissu was later charged for making an inflammatory statement.

However, most government officials and President Magufuli’s supporters have denied these allegations and add that everything that the president is doing is aimed at putting the country on the right track after many years of mismanagement.

Justice Thomas Mihayo, chairman of the retired judges, said: “The president acts in accordance with the law because there is nothing that he has done which breaches the law or is against the law. I have never heard him instruct that people should be locked up or that certain laws should be used or not used.”

But his critics say that Magufuli has personally threatened media owners and newspapers critical of his presidency at public rallies and over 10 people have been charged for criticising him on social media since he became president.

John Pombe Magufuli’s supporters and critics both agree on one thing: Everything this president has done has been unprecedented in the history of Tanzania. He also takes the helm at a fairly good time economically and if world trade picks up, Tanzania is all set for a boom decade. With Magufuli at the head, it will also be a clean time. Will he go down in history as the only African head of state to have effectively chopped off the head of the dragon of corruption?

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