Dr John Pombe Magufuli’s election in Tanzania in October has sent an electric current through the entire region’s body politick.
He was elected as the long-serving ruling party’s – Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s – candidate. He promised to get down to kazi (work) immediately.
The primary job at hand was – as it is for the entire region this week when the world ‘celebrated’ anti-corruption day – graft.
He hit the ground running and in a style that has the chattering classes impressed not only in East Africa but around the world.
Elected in the middle of a cholera outbreak, an early move was to cancel the Independence Day celebrations last week and instruct that part of the funds be used to buy more beds for the main hospital in Dar es Salaam and completing a road.
Instead of lavish spending on the celebrations, he asked Tanzanians to get out and clean up the country.
He led from the front, marching out of State House last Wednesday and mucking in with ordinary wananchi cleaning up enthusiastically with his own hands.
“Let us work together to keep our country, cities, homes and workplaces clean, safe and healthy,” he was reported to have told the crowd of surprised onlookers as he picked up rubbish off the street. “Tanzania has changed - this is a new Tanzania,” one resident told AFP, on a break from cleaning up the city's public beach.
He moved to quickly dismiss and replace the entire leadership of the ports authority – usually dens of corruption in many developing countries.
His rapid-fire actions and humility in approach captured the imagination of Kenyans on Twitter first before the fever spread around the world.
The Twitter hash tag #WhatWouldMwagufuliDo? was trending in Kenya for days and retains momentum still. It includes a large variety of clever quips of common sense solutions to everyday problems that reflected what the Twitterati at least thought of President Magufuli thus far. He was the subject of admiration and inspiration.
The question in a region of jaded cynics who have seen many anti-corruption drives, programmes, strategies, movements started by presidents making big promises in smooth speeches was whether President Magufuli’s undoubtedly populist approach was sustainable.
Indeed, the regular battery of legal types who’ve hogged the anti-corruption space for decades questioned the legality of some of his actions. In my opinion they are all missing the point.
Three months into his term President Uhuru Kenyatta went on a cleanup exercise in Nairobi accompanied by the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who has emerged as the most respected and admired public figure in Kenya.
Kenyatta pulled a few more populist moves, even heading out and visiting projects unannounced with minimum security. Still, these actions didn’t capture the public imagination the way Mwagufuli’s have.
In part it's because Kenyatta’s populism always appears stage-managed for maximum positive press value. Magufuli seems to have accompanied his more populist moves with harsh austerity measures that have public officers quaking about showing up in the office late.
Then there’s his reputation. As the doyen of Africa’s anti-corruption movement, former Tanzanian Prime Minister and CCM veteran Joseph S Warioba commented to the media recently: “He was for many years minister for works, supervising execution of mega projects worth trillions of shillings, but was never implicated in any corruption scandal…
He could have been the richest politician in the country.” So Magufuli has earned his stripes. The same kind of derisory cynicism that attends to the leadership here clearly isn’t baggage that the Tanzanian head of state came into office with.
As such, I would argue that given his life history, his record in public service so far Magufuli isn’t merely a ‘reformer’ implementing the latest programme cooked up with the World Bank and friends.
He has the opportunity to be a transformer seemingly set out to change the way his citizens think about public service. In part he is able to do this because he seems to know nothing else.
He grew up poor, studied in local schools, as his children all reportedly did. He’s not contorting himself to be something he’s not, he’s simply being himself.
The fight against corruption is 50 per cent perception. Our leaders in Kenya know that and have been masterful in their gimmickry and speeches about corruption while the problem has become a national crisis in a manner without precedent. The gimmicks are popular but their currency temporary.
Africans like seeing a leader whose ready to ‘mix it up’ with them – with dignity and sincerity.
This is partly because the tradition since Independence has been for imperial presidencies: remote, aloof, speeding past in noisy cavalcades, living lives of unimaginable luxury and looting public coffers with abandon together with their relatives and friends.
Rais John Pombe Mwagufuli has won round one. He has a head start. It is apt that he is orchestrating this shift in the year when Tanzania is also debating a new constitution. He can infect it.
An anti-corruption movement that inspires people need only be sustained for 18 to 24 months before certain aspects of it become norms and traditions that don’t need even be codified into law by lawyers who make it unreadable to the common mwananchi.
John Githongo is active in the anti-corruption field regionally and internationally. [email protected]