John Magufuli, Hero or Villian?

The late president John Magufuli

It seems to me that Africa is a cursed land. Time after time, Africans elect leaders not willing to put African people before their own stomachs. The rampant poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity and skill in the land has its roots sternly in colonialism, corruption, and bad governance. Once in a while the Gods smile on us and give us a good leader and for many Africans, John Magufuli brought optimism that inspired hope. We were about to witness change, we thought, we were about to have our happily ever after too. But was he Africa’s shining light? Was he the second coming? As I write this piece, I am concurrently googling Lesotho and Tanzania’s extradition protocol and hoping to not end up in a Tanzanian jail.

My first encounter of Magufuli was through my boyfriend’s narrations on how Magufuli was fighting to end corruption and incompetency in Tanzania. He would tell me stories of his impromptu visits to government institutes and the immediate dismissal of employees should he find any traces of incompetency. His most famous words “Tanzania belongs to us all and we should put the interests of the country first” were the words that his followers desperately clung to.

To live up to his words, he did. Magufuli increased royalty rates on their biggest export, gold, from 4% to 6%, he gave the state a 16% holding in mining companies and had contractual agreements between the state and companies reviewed to find any areas that were short-changing the state. He took a page out of Mugabe’s playbook and made it illegal to export concentrates and unprocessed material. He made changes within various sectors of government, all for the benefit of Tanzania’s people. His biggest accomplishment was the increase in tax-to-GDP ratio, a stellar 1,5% increase in his first term. His economic ambition to liberate Tanzania could not be questioned, his strategies seemed well-intentioned, possibly well-thought-through and solid action plans were in place to implement them.

Like China, the price for economic emancipation in Tanzania had been the sacrifice of the human rights of its people. Magufuli’s state-powered plan meant money needed to be drawn from somewhere and consequently, the money needed was pulled from social policies. One would argue, what use is a poor nation with a bunch of human rights? Should we not focus on empowering people and give them back their human rights once they have food in their stomachs? In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. Africa’s history is a plethora of blood and tears. One could pick any country at random and horror stories of either brutal wars, human rights crimes brought about by colonialism, tribalism, harmful cultural beliefs and practices or crimes by religion will follow. How then do we call a black leader that perpetuates these atrocities a hero?

In October of 2018, president Magufuli’s government introduced a campaign whose aim was to teach people how to report members of the LBTQIA+ community for persecution. This led to a witch hunt of members of the community. The list of crimes against members of the community included many being institutionalized and convicted, thousands denied access to healthcare, distribution of condoms and lubrication stopped, healthcare centres providing non-discriminatory healthcare underfunded and consequently closed, raids of meetings or trainings arranged by human rights activists and alleys, healthcare workers being enlisted to perform forced rectal examinations to find proof of sexual activity. The country’s government created an environment that led most LGBTQIA+ members underground, away from their loved ones, from proper healthcare, and away from the world they knew. This kind of ‘cleansing’ of a society is reminiscent of any dictator Africa has ever had. Robert Mugabe, was responsible for the death of around 20 000 Ndebele people under the guise of ethnic cleansing, Joseph Kony, Thomas Lubanga and Jean Kambanda are some of Africa’s worst dictators that were motivated by a kind of cleansing. What do we then call someone who allowed a societal cleansing? A hero??

In 2016, Magufuli’s government reintroduced a law that allowed pregnant school girls to be expelled from school and arrested in some cases. A 2017 Human Rights Watch report estimated this policy has contributed to 1.5 million adolescents being denied access to education. The effects of this have been well documented by various researchers. Denying young mothers an education decreases the chances of economic emancipation, not only does this policy perpetuate poverty but it re-inforces discrimination and stigma around young mothers.

This further raises the question of whether Magufuli’s intention was a world of milk and honey for all Tanzanians or the Tanzanians that fit within his moral compass.

The beloved president was affectionately known as The Bulldozer because of his no-nonsense approach to wastefulness, incompetency, inefficiency and corruption. An undesired side effect of this was the amount of power without accountability he obtained from this. In 2019, the president withdrew Tanzania’s declaration allowing individual Tanzanians to directly seek redress from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights against their government if they didn’t receive effective and timely remedy from national courts. The question is, if there was nothing to hide why would he do that?

His legacy of the economic vision he had for Tanzania will outlive him but we cannot deny the trajectory of his power trip. Anyone with a long memory, in the history of Africa’s vast number of dictators, will remember how the dictators came to power. It was hardly through resistance. It started with the Messiah complex, then moved to abuse of power allowed by the nation under the guise of bringing much-needed change to the country, over time the leader started changing constitutions to suit their agenda, elections come, opposition members are silenced and disappear and low and behold, the country has a permanent leader. How sway for covid to have saved Tanzania from a dictator.

This is a lesson for Africa really. We need to do away with needing a Messiah. We need to do away with over-glorifying any leader. We need to put the power back in the people, let the people become the government. We need to understand that a leader doing his job, doing what he promised us when he was campaigning, is not a super power of some sorts, it is a service unto us. It is not something we earn, it is not something we pray for but it is something we demand.

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