John Magufuli: Enigmatic builder who rained on his own parade

Tuesday April 13 2021
John Magufuli.

The late president John Magufuli (centre), when he toured infrastructure projects in Dar es Salaam in March 2021, a few days before he was taken ill. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


He will remain enigmatic for some time, and even when volumes are churned out on his life, work and legacy.

John Pombe Joseph Magufuli, was paradoxical in many senses. He was a driven man, always anxious to do more than would appear to be what was expected of him as part of duty. At the same time, he left out of his to-do-list too many things that he should have attended to.

He was that rare breed of politician who boasted three university degrees in science, but showed little inclination to listen to what scientific experts were saying, instead professing his belief in God as a remedy, and pandering to remedies and potions prescribed by quacks.

Magufuli rose to become head of state of a country that treasured its double linguistic identity, embracing Kiswahili and English as the two languages of state and administration without being comfortable with either, and made linguistic mastery seem irrelevant in leadership, even allowing himself a few coarse barbs in public.

He always exhorted his people to place God ahead of whatever they did, and yet he did not seem to heed his own advice when the Church representatives counselled him to do right by his people: To observe good governance and allow for dissenting voices to be heard.

The late president never ceased to state that he was the champion of the underdog in society, but when faced with the question of pregnant schoolgirls, he threw them under the bus, stating that he was ‘’not the president to educate mothers.’’


He vowed at every chance that he was on a warpath against corruption and spendthrift practices in government, and yet made sure great expenditures were hidden away in the President’s Office, making sure they would not be independently audited. He came to power riding on a victory of his party, Chama cha Mapinduzi, in a multiparty contest, and yet immediately after assuming office, declared that in five years there would be no opposition, and indeed went on to outlaw any and all opposition activities, including mass rallies and demonstrations.

He appealed to the people to pray for him so that he would not become arrogant, but became the most arrogant president in the history of Tanzania, insulting his ministers and other officials and using foul language on subalterns.

He declared that he was the president of all Tanzanians, but it soon became clear that he was partial to certain groups of Tanzanians whom he promoted and to whose transgressions he turned a blind eye.

In his appointments, one could discern the small number of Muslims, women and people from certain regions of the country. In fact, in his last Cabinet formed last November, there was not a single Zanzibari, barring the vice-president. Though I know it is still early days, I think it will be very hard to place Magufuli in a neat little pigeonhole, because wherever he is placed he is likely to be a handful, and even the most trenchant critics may find him something of a curveball.

One thing is clear, and that is where his heart lay: Construction. This may be explained by the many years he spent in the docket of infrastructure development. He simply loved to build, and build he did, from the time he was minister in Mkapa’s and Kikwete’s administrations to when he became the chief. Still, there has been no dearth of criticism of him as having had a parochial penchant for using huge sums of money to build structures whose usefulness could not be explained, in his home village of Chato.

The main opposition presidential candidate in last October’s election, Tundu Lissu, compared Chato to Gbadolite, Mobutu’s gilded home village now fully reclaimed by the jungle after the Congolese dictator’s death.

More controversially, Magufuli went on a buying spree for new aircraft to vamp up the ailing Air Tanzania (ATCL), boasting of ‘’paying cash,’’ something the experts say is unheard of in the industry. It is also unclear if the state-owned company has a commercial plan, as the big birds he purchased have been parked at the Julius Nyerere International Airport for quite some time now.

At some stage, Magufuli ordered the airline’s operations to be moved from the Transportation ministry to the President’s Office, which move shrouded its operations in opacity, adding onto persistent talk of improper procurement processes and huge losses being kept under wraps. There was also the small matter of there being hardly any money-making airline in the region.

The late president, as someone who declared his fierce opposition to corruption, had a strange relationship with transparency. He controversially retired a ‘’difficult’’ Controller and Auditor General, Prof Mussa Assad – whom he had no power to remove—because Mr Assad disagreed with Magufuli’s pursuit of opacity.

Many observers faulted Magufuli’s decision to have his nephew as permanent secretary at Finance ministry, effectively making him paymaster-general of the government, meaning whatever the president desired he got. Whereas this is no crime, ethical considerations of transparency and propriety would require that the highest observance of openness be practised.

Magufuli will be remembered as the president who promised to do away with the opposition, and who did just that. After promising that there would be no opposition in Tanzania in five years, he banned all political rallies and demonstrations. Akwilina Akwilini, a young female student was killed when police reacted brutally to an opposition public rally. She has since become an emblematic figure of the opposition’s quest for greater freedoms and political rights.

Meanwhile the media, already weak, meek and pliant, came under the mallet, with the 2016 Media Services Act, which introduced new fetters on the press and sought to kill the principle of self-regulation already agreed by the media fraternity.

Individual journalists have been subjected to unacceptable restrictions, and sometimes the outcomes have been really dire, such as when Azory Gwanda, a freelance journalist disappeared never to be seen again after he had been reporting on a troubled southern region in what could have been linked to the activities of certain jihadist groups. His son, born six months after Gwanda was taken, is now five, and has never seen his father.

A number of publications and TV stations have been suspended, fined or shut down for infractions that could have been handled otherwise. The directorate of information has assumed the role of not only investigator, prosecutor and judge, but also executioner.

Herein lies perhaps the biggest paradox presented by Magufuli. If you want to fight graft, your staunchest ally is a free press feeding on an alliance among a serious systemic official anti-corruption campaign, free room for whistle-blowers and a robust media scene. By failing to see this logic, Magufuli rained on his own parade, if indeed there was one.

More recently, Magufuli will be remembered, both nationally and internationally, for his stance on Covid-19. It was extraordinary how the president, a man with three chemistry degrees could turn so fast into a science-denying shaman.

The outpouring of grief we saw while throngs accompanied Magufuli’s body to the tomb I find real, because we Africans love nothing better than a good occasion to express our love for the departed. But, let’s take a moment off for reflection.

When the inventory is established, long after the last obituary has been written, the story will be told of a man who rose to prominence despite himself; who worked more hard than he worked smart; who swept all before him like the tornado does; who sought to build brick-and-mortar rather than spirit-and-soul; who in his humanness failed to listen to the contrary view; who may have caused the loss of too many lives he should have striven to protect.

May his troubled soul now find respite.