John Magufuli: Against the ‘Magas’ and the ‘Fools’

Tanzanian President Magufuli




‘A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus’ – Martin Luther King Jnr.

‘The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes.’ – Tony Blair

Earlier in the week, someone sent me a video of a news item about the ministers and senior government officials of Uganda sleeping at a major conference where the President of the country, Yoweri Museveni, was giving an important address. The list of the sleeping officials was shockingly long and included the Vice President, the Prime Minister and his Deputy, and the Finance Minister. In the telling video, the reporter interviewed some young man who insisted that, “had the President not been the one delivering the speech, he would have been sleeping too”. According to him, “the same sleeping group is the one the President enjoys working with; they are all tired, right from the President, the Vice President etc., those are grandfathers who should, for the few hours that they are awake, be playing with their grandchildren” the commentator concluded.

Museveni, 77, came into power in 1986 after he led a rebellion that first toppled Idi Amin in 1979 and then Milton Obote in 1985. He has managed to hold on to power these past 35 years by tampering with the enshrined constitutional term limit in 2005 and then Presidential age limit in 2017. On January 16, 2021, he was ‘returned’ for the 6th term running, after a controversial election widely believed to have been manipulated. Inevitably, the country continues to wallow in poverty and underdevelopment while Museveni perpetuates himself in power. This is similar to the stories we hear in many African countries run by incompetent and gerontocratic rulers who manage to seize and hold on to power in perpetuity.

For a change in this typical African story of despair, some cheering news came from the East African country, Tanzania, which incidentally, shares border with Uganda and Kenya. One of the landmarks of Tanzania is Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. At 947,303sq km, it is slightly larger than Nigeria with an estimated population of 56m people, one quarter the population of Nigeria. It has a nominal GDP size of about $66b with a per capita GDP of $1105. For comparison, Nigeria’s GDP size is estimated at $443b and GDP per capita is about $2,150. From independence in1961, Tanzania, just like many African countries, has had its fair share of challenges. Her first President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, was one of the foremost African nationalists who ruled the country from 1962 to 1985. After his regime, a constitutional term limit of two terms of 5 years, each was introduced. In October 2015, President John Pombe Magufuli was sworn in as the 5th President of Tanzania at the age of 55. In 2020, he was re-elected for his 2nd term. Sadly, by March 17, 2021, President Magufuli succumbed to the cold hands of death.

READ: Tanzanian President Magufuli dies aged 61

The enigmatic and unassuming leader was a subject of numerous categorizations while alive and at his death, there were wide ranging comments on the way he led the country. Some of the headline stories following his demise, particularly those of the foreign media blamed his passing on his denial of, or his playing down the existence and dangers of the Covid 19 virus. Some others saw him as a global hero who led from his heart and without airs or caprice. Some referred to him as a ‘Bulldozer’ while some others have called him a petty dictator. It must be pointed out that the controversy and criticisms of John Magufuli had been on even while he was alive. Praises for him were even louder than the affronts of his critics. It is important to note that the ‘Bulldozer’ nickname preceded his election as President. It was a name he acquired during his tenure as the Tanzanian Minister of Works, between 2005 and 2015, when he was reportedly so effective, even if ruthless, in deploying infrastructure to the country. Subsequently, the negative connotation of the name was promoted in his presidency when he was alleged to have this time, muscled opposition, free press and free speech. None of these can diminish the fact that he lived and died as another Tanzanian hero and the beloved of his people. His funeral was a major national event and there was the touching outpouring of love during the event. Several citizens removed their clothes and laid them on the road of the cortege, in a show of gratitude and adulation that could rival those that accompanied the scenes of Caesar’s returning to ancient Rome in triumph. Indeed, apart from the masses, who lined up the streets in their numbers, many African presidents and eminent personalities descended on Dar El Salam, to give Magufuli, a deserved heroic burial on Friday, March 26, 2021.

Magufuli clearly demonstrated that any serious leader can achieve a lot for his people within the short period of 4 to 5 years. While second term of office is provided for in most national constitutions, just like life itself, it is never assured. Unfortunately, even some of those African leaders that attended his funeral would leave the event determined that second term and, in some cases, even third term, should be guaranteed, as contained in the despicable political rule book they themselves write and read. I am of the firm belief that what one cannot do in a few years, he is unlikely to do in many years. Magufuli was one, in the true tradition of Nyerere, who seemed to know that even if he got a second term, completing it was not guaranteed. He encountered a lot of challenges when he took over in 2015. He inherited a very corrupt system, where, for instance, the phenomenon of ghost workers was the hallmark of the nation’s civil service. This vice was compounded by laxity, absenteeism and general inefficiency in the public sector. Public spending was conducted with reckless abandon and there was very little adherence to laid down procedures. Just like some of us here in Nigeria have been screaming ourselves hoarse on the cost of governance in our country, President Magufuli, confronted wasteful expenditure culture of the civil service, head on. The first casualty of his reform programme was the Independence Day celebration budget. Once he took over, he cancelled the entire celebration and directed that the funds thus saved be channelled into the rehabilitation of the Ubungo highway. This was an area of need as it had to do with major access into the city of Dar El     Salaam.

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Still in his first year in office, he stopped government officials from foreign trips except where those were absolutely necessary, in such cases, his prior approval must be secured. In one year, the Tanzanian government, saved $430m from the travel budget alone. He channelled the savings into free education and the remuneration of teachers and education workers. The immediate result was a massive increase in school enrolment, which was hitherto going down. My take is that he was one of the few African leaders, who was not only educated to the highest level, but understood the importance of quality education in the life of an individual and the nation.

President Magufuli understood the way the economy worked and used that knowledge to the full benefit of his government and people. He understood that most of the lofty ideas he had needed to be financed. He also knew that the base of the Tanzanian economy was too small to generate enough revenue to achieve those dreams. Of course, he could have gone to borrow from international lenders, just like many of his contemporaries. He chose instead to do something about the country’s tax base, in order to increase internal revenue generation capacity. He ensured that he created the enabling environment for businesses to expand and grow while the government collected all that was due it. He had an eye on the agreed cap on debt to GDP ratio of 40%. He knew that to maintain this cap and not resort to borrowing, he had to fund all the development projects and government expenditure from internally generated revenue.

As if he anticipated the pandemic which he is now being accused of being a sceptic, he reasoned that while not discouraging tourism, the economy needed to have a strong productive base for growth and local consumption. He believed, based on information available to him, that the mineral sector, which contributed about 4% of GDP could do a lot better, but for the corruption endemic in the sector. He made a few personnel changes and instituted an enquiry into some of the big mining companies who were alleged to be involved in tax fraud. One of those companies was made to pay back about $300m to government coffers, an amount generated by under-declared government funds spanning several years.

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John Magufuli followed up the war against fraud with massive reforms in the mineral sector. These included increase in royalties, enactment of a local content legislation of at the minimum 20% and government minority participation in ownership of mining companies. His engagement with Multinational Corporations showed him as a leader with courage and vision. Prior to his time, foreign companies were revered, and no one dared touch them. He forced renegotiation or outright cancellation of contracts and deals that were not in the interest of Tanzania. He cancelled what he called “exploitative and awkward” contracts with the Chinese. This won him a lot of accolades and popularity leading to the twitter hashtag #WhatWouldMagufulido? He massively took on the infrastructural development of the country and just before his death, he awarded a contract for the construction of a 341km standard gauge railway from the town of Mwanza on Lake Victoria to Isaka, a town in the Southern part of the country. It is also to his credit that huge investments were made in the Public bus mass transit system in Dar El Salaam in addition to rural electrification projects that are now littered in different parts of the country.

There is no doubt that in economic terms, Tanzania is a poor country, however, the determined effort of Magufuli and his team saw the economy improve every year on the back of growing domestic capital and other factors of production. By 2019, economic growth had seen Tanzania’s GDP per capita inch up to $1,080. In 2020, the World Bank had no choice but to announce the upgrade of the Tanzanian economy from low income to lower middle-income country. This is because Tanzania had crossed the threshold for low-income countries by almost $50

One more thing that Magufuli would be remembered for is that he maintained a clean record and high moral standards, throughout his years of service to his country. He ran the Works ministry for many years, awarding large contracts involving millions of dollars but he was never associated with bribes, kickbacks or fraud. He was above board and this helped in securing party leaders’ support to be nominated for the party’s ticket in 2015, when the favoured candidate Edward Lowassa, who had previously served as the Prime Minister, was forced to resign his position because of a corruption scandal.

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Naturally, as any other human being, he also had what many of his critics could point at as his negative side. He was accused of high handedness, authoritarianism and clamping down on opposition. He was also said to support some policies which many people in his country were against. For instance, a policy which prevented pregnant girls from going to school and expelled those already in school, resulted in tens of thousands of young girls being thrown out of school. The big one that western press made heavy weather of is his scepticism on the Coronavirus Pandemic and how several deaths would have been prevented had he taken the pandemic more seriously. They also alleged that his rhetoric was scaring foreign investors away from the country.

While it is not for us to put these allegations to scrutiny, we opine that any leader who appears to have a mind of his own would always meet resistance from foreign interests and local agents. On the issue of authoritarianism, there appears a thin line between enforcing rules and respecting the rule of law. Sometimes, reasonable force may be required to get things done. A debate which I do not think has been resolved around the concept of “benevolent dictatorship” may be relevant here. The argument around scaring away foreign investment is well-worn and now sounds like a broken record, as studies have shown that foreign capital is attracted to profits, no matter where it is located.

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The final issue about the Tanzanian Covid controversy seemed to have gathered so much momentum that Magufuli’s re-election last year was practically hanging in the balance. However, it is our opinion that many world leaders, including President Donald Trump were sceptical about the Pandemic. Did it stop over 70m Americans from voting for him in the November 2020 election? Did it stop his MAGA, as different from the Maga used here, from supporting him, up to the point of staging an insurrection at the Capitol? Looking at the covid numbers as at March 25, 2021, while total cases worldwide was about 125.4m, US accounted for 30.7m while Tanzania accounted for 509 cases. With respect to deaths, as at the same date, total world death was 2.8m, while the US lost 558,000, Tanzania lost 21 people. I am not sure these numbers support the oft-repeated but clearly spurious claims that Magufuli’s Tanzania played down on the Pandemic leading to many deaths in the country.

It is our considered opinion that President Magufuli stood against powerful capricious forces – the Magas in Africa and around the world – and refused to suffer those fools gladly. He must go down in history as a foremost pan African leader and a patriot. This column salutes his courage and prays for the sweet repose of his noble and incorruptible soul. Following her subsequent assumption of power, we wish the first female President of Tanzania, Samia Suhulu Hassan, every success in her tour of duty.

Finally, please permit me to wish all our Christian readers, a happy Easter celebration in advance.

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