The unexpected news of John Magufuli’s death sent shockwaves in Africa and across the world, in what became an unfortunate end to a somewhat promising chapter in African politics. His no-nonsense approach to corruption and state extravagance was a significant characteristic of his political career, although blighted by his not-so-favorable approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite being attacked by his critics for closing in on democratic spaces, it is undoubted that he was a progressive force for development in Tanzania. Inspired by Julius Mwalimu Nyerere, he took on a fierce independent path, holding foreign companies accountable for equitable benefit sharing. Magufuli did not tolerate the nonchalance of the public service regarding the delivery of their mandates, creating an impeccable start to his presidency.
He was focused on results-oriented political and economic approaches to provide efficient leadership for Tanzania when assumed the presidential office in 2015. He castigated the absenteeism in the civil service, believing that servant leadership was the hallmark of serving in a public office. He canceled Independence Celebrations to limit unnecessary government spending. He introduced public clean-ups and banned foreign travels for public servants. His methods attempted to redefine the scope of public office within the African context – often considered to be regressive. It was an impressive blueprint that other African countries could emulate.
State intervention was one of the pinnacles that defined Magufuli’s economic policies. Although mired in a cloud of lack of transparency as the years of his presidency progressed, such state-led investment was responsible for infrastructural development.
The creation of a standard gauge railway to link the country with its regional neighbors, the extension of major highways, and the development of the public transport system serves as a basis for his desire to materially transform Tanzania (most of this was done when Magufuli was Minister of Works from 2010-2015).
The state-run airline, Air Tanzania, was brought back to life. Although attacked for “holding foreign firms to ransom” some may find justification for such – foreign firms exist to exploit Africa. Canadian-linked Acacia Mining (a subsidiary of Barrick Gold) was fined with a $190 billion tax bill over royalties owed to the government, and although they agreed to pay $300 million, they consented to equal benefit sharing from the mines.
With an authoritarian twist to his political and economic advances, media freedoms and individual civil liberties were curtailed. Live television proceedings from Parliament were stopped, and opposition parties were not amenable to these moves by Magufuli. Questioning the statistics of the state attracted criminal punishment. His critics argue that because of the repressed political climate, he won the 2020 election with a landslide victory (84% of the vote).
His COVID-19 denialism, which made Tanzania an outlier in the fight against the pandemic, will probably stand as the villainous part of his presidency. Identifying himself as an African nationalist and devout Catholic, he downplayed the coronavirus as “the devil,” urging people to go pray in churches and mosques. He was averse to lockdowns, believing this was an imposition on the sovereignty of Tanzania by foreign forces, and refusing to bow down to such. He declared the country Covid-free, saying masks were not effective and deriding neighboring countries which put lockdown measures in place.
But one could argue he did so in good faith (believing lockdowns were an intrusion in Tanzania’s self-determination and that they would kill the economy), although not desirable given how the pandemic has taken countless lives. Nonetheless, it is time for the dominant Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, now headed by newly sworn-in president Samia Suluhu Hassan, to review the mistakes of the former president and rectify Tanzania’s policy towards the pandemic.
What is evident however is that John Magufuli wanted to reimagine Africa, to create an Africa where the state took care of its people by reducing corruption, and inspiring confidence in the African peoples.
The positive parts of his presidency will stand in the shadow of the negative aspects, especially as regards how global mainstream media covers him. It is a complex but undoubtedly impressive legacy and it is hoped Hassan will handle Tanzania’s traumatic transition period with reasonable political maturity.