By Obadiah Mailafia
Nobody will live forever. There is a time and a season for everything under the sun, says the Preacher. A time to be born and a time to die. John Magufuli, President of the United Republic of Tanzania, passed away on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 after a protracted illness. He was aged 61. His deputy, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has been sworn in as his successor; the first woman in the country’s illustrious post-independence history.
He had not been seen in public for about a month. It was rumoured that he had contracted the evil virus; but it transpires that he died of a cardiac arrest. He had been battling with a heart condition for years. It is the end of an era.
John Magufuli was one of the most outstanding leaders of our New Africa, alongside Festus Mogae, Meles Zenawi, Pedro Pires, Hifikepunye Pohamba, Joaquim Chissano, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Paul Kagame. Tanzanians have been thrown into mourning. It is rare for ordinary people to speak of an African leader with genuine love in their hearts. Niccolo Machiavelli recommended that if a prince has to choose between being loved and being feared, he would be wise to choose the latter. Most of our leaders are more feared than loved by their citizens. Magufuli was a rare exception in this regard. He was a genuine servant-leader who was truly beloved by the ordinary wananchi of Tanzania.
But he was also feared – some would say, reviled — by elites who live in gilded privilege by sucking the blood of the people.
He was following in the footsteps of the founding-father of Tanzania, the illustrious Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1922—1999). Scholar, statesman and pan-African socialist, Mwalimu Nyerere was a humble and incorruptible statesman. He gave Tanzanians a sense of genuine pride in their nationhood. Tanzania today is different from neighbouring Kenya where ethnic animosities are bitter and toxic.
John Pombe Joseph Magufuli was born in Chato district on the shores of Lake Victoria on October 29, 1959. He came from humble stock. During the campaign trail in 2015, he declared: “Our home was grass-thatched, and like many boys, I was assigned to herd cattle, as well as selling milk and fish to support my family…. I know what it means to be poor. I will strive to help improve people’s welfare”.
A school teacher by training, he studied Education and Science at University Dar es Salaam, earning a doctorate in Chemistry in 2009. After a stint in teaching, he joined the Nyanza Cooperative Union as an industrial chemist during 1989-1995. He successfully stood for election as MP for Chato under the platform of the ruling Chamacha Mapinduzi (CCM). His abilities caught the attention of the then President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, who appointed him to a succession of ministerial cabinet positions: Lands, Livestock and Fisheries; Works, Transport and Communications.
In July 2015, he won the CCM presidential primaries against rivals Asha-Rose Migiro, former UN Deputy Secretary-General and veteran diplomat Amina Salum Ali. He went on to clinch the national elections and was sworn in as the fifth President of Tanzania on November 5, 2015. He won a second five-year term in October 2020, under circumstances that were somewhat more controversial. It was claimed that opposition groups were muzzled and that the elections were marred by a general “climate of fear”.
One of the first decisions he took as president was to slash his own monthly salary from $15,000 to $4,000. On his first day in office, he made a surprise visit to the Ministry of Finance to find out how many people had actually turned up for work. He made it clear that he would not brook the traditional absenteeism that had been so rife among civil servants. That same week he announced a blanket ban on all foreign travels for public servants in order to conserve scarce foreign exchange; saving in the process as much as $430 million for the treasury in 2017 alone.
He also scrapped the rather costly traditional Independence Day celebrations that hold every December 9. He declared it, instead, as a day for cleaning up the country. He was often seen picking up rubbish outside State House in the capital of Dar es Salaam. He said it was unseemly to spend so much on mere festivities “when our people are dying of cholera”. He also trimmed the cabinet from 30 to 19 ministers.
Magufuli was nicknamed “the bulldozer” because of his prowess in infrastructural development – highways and bridges, port facilities, aviation, energy, mining and railways.
But he was also not one to shy away from controversy. He was criticized for human rights abuses by Amnesty International and others. Churches and civil society groups cried foul about the alleged muzzling of opposition voices. In July 2016, he banned shisha smoking, pointing to its bad effects on the youths. He upheld the legislation on a 30-year jail term for same-sex liaisons. He expelled groups campaigning for LGBTQ rights.
A devout Catholic, the late president was also staunchly opposed to abortion and family planning. He accused those opting for family planning of being “lazy” and not wanting to “work hard to feed a large family”. He was also a contrarian regarding COVID-19, which he dismissed as a global scam. When the first test kits were brought to Dar es Salaam, he had them secretly tested on goats and chickens.
When a goat tested positive, he was derisive. He was also opposed to the generalised lock-down, especially on places of worship. He was quoted as saying: “Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus”. To his last day, he continued advocating for home-grown steam and herbal remedies, including the concoction from Madagascar.
Magufili was among a new breed of African leaders who do not suffer from the innate inferiority complex that afflicts many of our people when they are faced with our new Roman proconsuls.
He must have inevitably made powerful enemies within and outside Tanzania. He expelled the UNDP Country Representative. He denounced the EU-East African trade deal as a form of “neocolonialism”. The EU broke diplomatic relations and stopped bilateral aid. In 2017, he accused the British gold-mining company, Acacia, of tax evasion, slamming an unprecedented tax bill of $190 billion after 250 of their containers were intercepted at the port in Dar es Salaam. The company settled for a payment of $300 million as well as concession of a 16% stake for the government. The government passed a new law empowering it to terminate or renegotiate a mining contract in the event of proven fraud.
Magufuli famously dismissed the offer of a $10 billion Chinese loan with a remark that only a “madman” could accept the terms.
The late president scores high on macroeconomic management. Tanzania for decades operated a poverty-stricken, centralised command economy. He successfully engineered a new prosperity. Economic growth averaged nearly six percent annually. He gave Tanzanians renewed confidence in their sense of nationhood. He left the scene at a time when things were looking up and the country was poised to register bigger milestones in economic development.
In defending the honour of Tanzania and the dignity of our glorious continent, Magufuli undoubtedly incurred the wrath of powerful enemies from within and outside his country.
No man is perfect. The highest wisdom of statecraft is to know that even the saint will occasionally get his hands dirty. Magufuli was no saint. But he was the quintessential servant-leader. He served his people with compassion and justice. According to Joseph Warioba, a former Prime Minister, Magufuli could easily have become one of the richest men in Tanzania. But it is to his eternal credit that he never succumbed to that temptation.
He lived a strenuous and austere life, like a Trappist Monk. God and History will absolve him. His will be a rest of the righteous and the just.