Opinion in Tanzania, Africa and abroad is still divided over the leadership of the late John Magufuli. Anver Versi, editor of New African Magazine, draws a portrait of one of Africa’s most controversial as well as charismatic leaders.
On 19 March, Tanzania’s former Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan took the oath of office as the country’s new President following the untimely death of John Magufuli as the country entered into a 14-day period of national mourning.
Tributes from other African leaders poured in. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of next-door neighbour Kenya announced a seven-day period of official mourning. “In the passing on of President Magufuli, I have lost a friend, a colleague, and a visionary ally whom I worked with closely, particularly on our commitment to forge lasting bonds between Kenya and Tanzania,” he said.
Among many others, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “South Africa is united in grief with the government and people of Tanzania as they go through this difficult moment.” Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa posted on Twitter, sending sympathy to the people of Tanzania: “Africa mourns with you.
In Tanzania itself, there was a clear sense of shock and loss, especially among the ordinary people who saw him as their champion. Many people wept openly. “He changed our lives,” said Omari Hamdun, “he brought us power, running water, better roads – he cared for us. We have lost our ‘Baba’ (father).”
“I have never cried because of any leader’s death, but President Magufuli has made me cry because I remember his good performance,” Lucky Mwandeko is reported to have said by ABC Press. “He brought discipline into the country. If you go to public offices, you get good services and even the revenue authorities in Tanzania have announced an increase in revenue collections due to his efforts. So we have lost a very great leader.”
While the African press was general deeply sympathetic, the Western press focussed on his controversial stance on Covid-19 – announcing the death of “one of Africa’s most vehement pandemic deniers”. Few however grouped him together with Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or even the UK’s Boris Johnson (in the early days of the pandemic) who were just as sceptical.
Why Magufuli, who had a master’s degree in chemistry and was outstanding in science as a student, would decide to defy evidence and set his face against any precautions to ward off the infection remains a mystery. Perhaps now, with the change in regime, the truth may emerge.
From his early pronouncements, it seems that while he was aware of the dangers of the epidemic, he was also worried about the impact that lockdowns and a climate of fear would do to the economy. “We are poor and cannot afford not to work,” he said.
Some insiders now say that he took a gamble based on the equation: “you may or may not get Covid; but if you don’t work, you’ll starve for sure” and decided that he would take his chances by keeping the country open.
What is the cost in terms of lives lost or health impaired as a result of this decision? We cannot know for certain as so far there has been no official tally of deaths caused by the virus but there is no doubt that hospitals and burial services have been overwhelmed. Has the rate of attrition been higher than in other African countries which did take precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks? Again it is too early to come to a definite conclusion.
But commenting on social media, Sulamain Taher writes: “If Magufuli had asked his people to walk to hot coals, they would have done so with a smile. If he had told them to wear masks and keep social distance, every single person would have obeyed and the country might not have had even one case. What an opportunity aborted!”
While his approach to the pandemic might is a black mark against his leadership, it should not obscure his other achievements – and failings as a leader.
Like a cleaning wind
When Magufuli, an ‘outsider’ among the ranks of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party that has ruled the country since independence in 1961, swept into the Presidency in November 2015, he was described as “a strong cleaning wind sweeping away the decaying cobwebs in the corridors of power.”
He laid his cards down immediately, much to the horror of the CCM political elite as well as the country’s thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy, civil service and police. It set off alarm bells ringing among businesses that had long found ‘accommodation’ with tax and regulatory authorities.
He slashed public service salaries, including his own, cancelled privileges for Ministers, put a stop to unnecessary and expensive travel, demanded accountability at all levels and ruthlessly weeded out endemically corrupt officials. “We are here to serve the public; the public is not here to serve us,” he declared.
To the chagrin of many, his campaigning did not end with high-sounding rhetoric as is the case with most leaders; he followed up with swift and decisive action. The ‘Bulldozer’ as he was called, flattened out all the hidey-holes in which a corrupt system had comfortably taken lodgings.
The public loved him. He toured the country, often paying unexpected visits to remote rural areas and rapidly addressing their issues. When middlemen tried to undercut farmer prices for cashew nuts, he ordered officials to purchase the entire stock at above prevailing market prices rather than see the farmers lose revenue.
He held the feet of major mining and other multinationals to the fire over unpaid taxes and made then disgorge billions. He cracked the whip over VAT and other taxes and filled government coffers.
He maintained Tanzania’s impressive record as one of Africa’s fastest growing economies (averaging 7%) since 2000. He accelerated several major infrastructure projects such as the $11bn Bagamoyo Port Project, the expansion of Dar es Salaam port, the new international airport at the capital, Dodoma, the 2,707km SGR electric railway line which will open up the heart of the country to new trading opportunities and the $30bn Likong’o-Mchinga Liquefied Natural Gas plant.
Made many enemies
But perhaps his greatest contribution, some say, is the mind-set change he has brought about – a sense of can-do optimism and putting the national interest above personal benefit. But he made it clear that he would brook no nonsense – that power was to be used to uplift people, not pursued for itself or for the benefits it could generate.
In the process, he made many enemies. Secret cabals swore that Magufuli would be a ‘one-term President, whatever it takes’. There were rumours of attempted assassinations. Some opposition leaders sought support from foreign sources and there was a constant drip of negative stories in some local and foreign media.
Magufuli, his supporters say, struck back. He came down hard – perhaps too hard – on some opposition figures and laid down the law on what the press could and could not report on.
The Tanzanian press has always been supportive of government, especially on development issues, but it has also been independent in its coverage. This stricture did not sit well and ironically, by forbidding the press from making any mention of the pandemic, he allowed all sorts of rumours and suppositions to flourish.
According to the Constitution of Tanzania, Madam Samia Suluhu Hassan, who is from Zanzibar, will remain the President of the country until the next elections. She will be called upon to choose her Vice-President, who must be from the mainland.
A good deal will hinge on this choice – which must be approved by simple majority in Parliament (Bunge). Magufuli held a whip hand over the top echelons of the party and the question now is how much loyalty Madam Hassan can expect from the more restive members of CCM.
It will also be interesting to see how the opposition, particularly Tundu Lissu, will play it. Lissu was shot but survived and went into exile in Belgium, returning briefly during the elections last year.
Commenting on Magufuli’s death, he said: “It’s poetic justice. President Magufuli defied the world on the struggle against Covid-19. He defied the East African community, he defied all our neighbours. He defied science.”
While Lissu is right, his words denigrating Magufuli so soon after his death seem to have struck completely the wrong note in Tanzania with the social media buzzing with condemnation for his statement.
But neither Lissu, nor other opposition figures will go away and President Hassan will have to deal with them as well as try and fulfil the huge expectations among the public that Magufuli has stimulated. It will not be easy for her to chart her own course.
John Pombe Magufuli was a man of enormous charisma and energy (he often did press ups with others much younger than him); a fluent and hypnotic speaker and with his easy smile and witty repartee, exuded tremendous charm. But he was also single-minded, often very stubborn and thin skinned. He could be devastatingly blunt when he chose to be or soothing and comforting when that was necessary. He aroused extreme emotions among people at home and abroad.
Like him or hate him, over his brief period in office, John Magufuli rose to become one of the giants of African politics. His shadow, like that of the country’s first President, Julius Nyerere, will be cast far into the future of Tanzania and Africa.
RIP John Pombe Joseph Magufuli 1959 – 2021. President of Tanzania November 2015 – March 2021