The passing on of Tanzania’s president, John Pombe Magufuli, on March 17, brought closure to a delicate subject and drew the curtain on the career of a transformative, if conservative, African leader.
In life as in death, Magufuli was controversial. Born of poor parents in rural Tanzania just before the country’s Independence from Britain, Magufuli grew up conscious of the sharp contrast in fortunes between his community and the international mining conglomerates that held rights to the mineral wealth. As president, he would make the recasting of that relationship a personal mission, forcing reforms that gave Tanzanians a fairer share of their mineral wealth.
With hindsight, it could be said that Magufuli had a sense of foreboding. Plagued by a debilitating heart condition, like the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Magufuli lived his life like he had only one day to live. He travelled less and restricted wasteful foreign travel by government functionaries.
He zealously modernised Tanzania’s infrastructure, instilled discipline in the public service and refused to conform to long established if unequal norms of relations between African and development partners. This earned him admirers both in an out of Tanzania but also brought on criticism.
Nicknamed the ‘’bulldozer’’ for his single-minded focus on getting government programmes under his docket completed and on time, Magufuli was also known for piety in a largely corrupt setting. Infrastructure development is mostly seen as a cash cow in many African governments. As Minister for Works, and later as president, he presided over unprecedented and scandal-free infrastructure development. When Kenya and Uganda settled for a high-end and almost unaffordable standard gauge railway development, Magufuli settled for a suit that fitted Tanzania’s cloth, making a break with China. During his tenure, electricity coverage in Tanzania increased exponentially in a short five years.
Impatient with mediocrity, he earlier this year dismissed a ministerial nominee who fumbled while taking the oath of office. He will also be remembered for sacking civil servants who were either corrupt or under-performing.
Yet he could not escape the centrifugal of his times. Raised as a staunch Catholic, Magufuli grew up in times when African leaders were absolute rulers. Little wonder then that freedom of expression and democracy suffered during his tenure. Magufuli betrayed little interest in or faith in the basic tenets of free societies such as freedom of speech and association; and the rights of citizens to hold the government to account. The failed assassination of opposition leader Tundu Lissu, the introduction of laws that gave the state tight control over what should be public information will be enduring stains on his legacy.
Yet to err is human. Tanzania now has a new leader who has to chart her own course. In a way, Magufuli’s achievements and shortcomings define the task at hand for President Samia Suluhu, who stepped into his shoes on Friday. She only has to ensure the country does not slide back on Magufuli’s achievements, while putting it on a more democratic path. The King is dead, long live the King.