By Paul Ejime*
With his burial in his hometown of Chato, some 950-km northwest of Dar es Salaam on 26th March, Tanzania’s late President John Pombe Magufuli joined the list of Africa’s unsung heroes.
The 61-year-old Chemistry and Maths teacher, and devout Christian, died on 17th March, having governed the East African country for less than six years, with a leadership style similar to that of Tanzania’s independent President Mwalimu (Teacher) Julius Nyerere.
But Magufuli carved a niche for himself in his uncompromising results-oriented actions. Even before assuming the presidency in 2015, he had, as Minister for Works earned the nickname of a “Bulldozer” because of the manner he executed infrastructure programmes, especially the construction of many roads.
As president, Magufuli was applauded for his anti-corruption stance, sacking offending government officials and taking tough decisions that saved the country huge amounts, including by purging the government payroll of “ghost workers.”
His government revived the State-run Air Tanzania, created a standard gauge railway that linked the country with its regional neighbours. He also expanded major highways, built a bus rapid transit system in the nation’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam and increased electricity production and supply, reducing previous power rationing in the country.
Magufuli led by example and from the front, mixing freely with the people, playing the drums at a public function, and acting as a Church usher by taking the offering during a worship service. He cancelled Tanzania’s Independence Day celebrations for the first time in 54 years and instead ordered a national clean-up and participated in the exercise outside the State House.
He extended his incorruptible disposition to his dealings with Tanzania’s partner countries and organisations. In one case, he recovered up to US$300 million from a foreign company as a fine from unpaid taxes. But Magufuli also courted controversy with his unwavering pan-Africanist and aggressive stance towards foreign powers he accused of seeking to exploit his country. His political opponents, some civil society groups, and Western countries accused him of clamping down on the opposition, curtailing press freedom, and unfairly treating some foreign companies.
Magufuli belonged to the CCD – Party of the Revolution or Chama Cha Mapinduzi (in Swahili), Africa’s longest-ruling party. Under his presidency, two of his opponents Tundu Lissu and Freeman Mbowe, both of the opposition CHEDEMA – Party for Democracy and Progress or Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, endured serial arrests, detentions and attacks by usually unknown gunmen.
The government often denied involvement in the attacks, but Lissu, a former presidential candidate, who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, is currently on self-exile in Belgium. He and other opponents naturally have nothing but contempt for the late president. But even Magufuli’s harshest critics agree that he contributed immensely to Tanzania’s development with substantial investments in large infrastructure projects, thereby turning Tanzania into a middle-income country with his breath-taking leadership style. Magufuli was reported to have shunned bribes and rejected moves by MPs from his ruling party to change the constitution so that he could run for a third-term.
Undoubtedly, his under-reported achievements and incorruptibility set him apart as an unsung hero in a continent tainted by bad governance. The support and deep affection he enjoyed among his compatriots could be gauged from the outpouring of tributes and homage he received. Tanzanians in their thousands lined the streets, and in a traditional mark of respect, some spread their wrappers, with one or two even throwing themselves down on the path of Magufuli’s funeral motorcade.
His former deputy and successor, Dr Samia Suluhu Hassan, declared 14 days of national mourning. Neighbouring countries of Zambia, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa are also mourning the Tanzanian leader in a special way. Glowing tributes have poured in from across the world eulogising Magufuli, with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, saying: “I have lost a friend, colleague and visionary ally.”
Indeed, Magufuli would remain a reference point in African leadership studies, particularly for avoiding the typical pitfalls of corruption, greed, cronyism or incompetence. Kenyan lawyer Prof Patrice Lumumba has in fact advocated for the “Magufulification” of Africa.
Magufuli’s re-election in 2020 was not without acrimony and perhaps, the lowest point of his presidency was his Covid-19 denial and refusal to support international efforts to fight the disease, claiming that his country was free of the virus. But that singular act cannot diminish his achievements. Magufuli had a history of heart conditions and had suddenly disappeared from public view for two weeks before Dr Hassan broke the news that he had died of heart failure. But the cause of Magufuli’s death became a major subject of controversy from the official account to rumours of being poisoned by enemies or his dying of Covid-19.
Dr Hassan, considered very loyal to Magufuli, now has the arduous task of picking the pieces from where her former boss left off, as Tanzania’s first female president and one of a few women to occupy that high position in Africa. Her immediate challenges will include consolidating the gains of Magufuli’s presidency and recalibrating Covid-19 national response.
Like every human, Magufuli has played his part and left behind a legacy on how Africa can leapfrog development through infrastructure development.
He did step on powerful toes, particularly in his rejection of the existence of a disease that has claimed millions of lives and counting across the world and how he treated his opponents, the media and some foreign partners.
But his presidency represents an open book containing teachable lessons in the political and socio-economic governance system. By his decisions and achievements, Magufuli endeared himself to the majority of his compatriots as well as many admirers within and outside Africa. He demonstrated what is possible through committed, focused and uncompromising leadership. On the other hand, some of his policy decisions have thrown up issues related to moderation, wisdom, shrewdness and tolerance/accommodation in leadership. Life is about give and take based on the understanding that no one has the monopoly of intelligence or knowledge. No country is an island in a digitally globalising World.
There could also be an interrogation of the perception of Western media’s role as an alleged tool of powerful foreign forces bent on destabilizing Africa and developing nations through negative news reporting while ignoring the positive developments. This is in relation to the under-reporting of Magufuli’s achievements vis-à-vis the overwhelming Covid-19 denial narrative that overshadowed his good works.
In truth, unlike Magufuli, many African leaders are their own worst enemies in their policy decisions, or acts of omission or commission. It must be said that no professional media, whether Western or local, (except government-owned), should function or be seen as the public relations arm of government.
But it is also ironic that the same African government officials who complain against Western media’s bias often prefer to grant interviews or make policy announcements through such media and only revert to the local press to clean-up any misunderstanding! More importantly, beyond the perennial complaints, what concrete steps have African governments taken to strengthen or empower the media in their own countries to ensure that Africa’s stories are told from the African perspective?
The Report of the McBride Commission set up in 1980 by UNESCO on the New World Information and Communication Order contained clear recommendations on how to address biases and inequalities in information flow between the developed North and developing South. The weaknesses of the media and inadequate funding of information structures in developing countries were highlighted. But what has changed decades after? Until Africa takes robust and deliberate measures to build and strengthen its information and communication architecture, Africa’s stories would be told by others, and Africa’s voice muffled or drowned.
*Paul Ejime, a Journalist, Author and former Diplomatic/War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Communications, Media, Elections and International Affair