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February 23, 2019

Why I'm still cynical of President Magufuli's reforms

Tanzania's President John Pombe Magufuli addresses members of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party (CCM) at the party's sub-head office on Lumumba road in Dar es Salaam. Photo/File
Tanzania's President John Pombe Magufuli addresses members of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party (CCM) at the party's sub-head office on Lumumba road in Dar es Salaam. Photo/File

President John Magufuli, you tempt me. You tempt me so. I need my cynicism. Not even kidding: I actually need it to work. And yet I’m ever so tempted to give in to actually liking what’s going on in Tanzania now.

To suspend cynicism and, say, believe. I like the reduction of pomp and circumstance in order to spend the money on sensible things for those who don’t have much. I like that people are being sacked (instead of ‘stepping aside’). I like the leaner Cabinet.

I loved the photograph of Mr Magufuli cycling. How amazing would that be to encounter the odd cycling minister instead of being run off the road by their chase cars as a thank you for paying for their salary and perks?

At first, I didn’t pay much attention. It’s the done thing, on taking a new political office, to make all sorts of declarations about fighting corruption. You stick it on your manifesto, your ‘vision’ and you mention it in speeches. But this is usually without any details on how corruption will actually be fought – mostly because that was never the intent in the first place.

Anti-corruption pledges are just an empty PR thing, a box to tick. In reality, there might be a grand gesture or two, but then it’s business as usual, and so-called anti-corruption measures are essentially used to get rid of opponents, or simply to take over the ‘eating’ opportunities.

And while I’m intrigued, I’m not quite ready to suspend cynicism. He might revert to normal after spending a little longer than his colleagues on a few well-publicised efforts. And a sustained anti-corruption effort requires more than the grand gestures.

Not that those are entirely pointless: a large part of what keeps all of us largely on the straight and narrow is the fear of punishment. So sacking and arresting people sends a pretty clear message. What does not send a clear message is getting people to ‘step aside’ and then recycling them elsewhere a few months later. Or just getting them to ‘step aside’ and let them keep everything they’ve accumulated.

Also, when corruption is so deeply entrenched in the system, it’s not enough to rely on a few personal interventions. They will be important to set a signal, but they won’t be enough. Anyone at the top who is serious about this needs a committed team, and competent institutions. Not just because there will inevitably be a backlash, but also because you need to work your way through the system.

So while Magufuli’s order to reduce foreign travel, his ban on retreats and lavish spending on celebrations are a great start, I’m not holding my breath yet.

In Kenya, suspending several ministers and other high-ranking officials earlier this year has yielded nothing. There were no successful prosecutions. There were, in fact, no actual prosecutions. I didn’t expect there to be any either: the cases were too many, the various institutions involved too weak, and also too corrupt, and the timeframe too short. It is a grand promise that fell flat, unsurprisingly.

We sit and listen with some intrigue to the explanation of the Nairobi City government finance official who managed to accumulate hundreds of millions of shillings as a good collection of real estate on a salary of Sh80,000. He won’t be convicted because he can afford all the lawyers – and judges.

We would laugh, if it weren’t so depressing, at the senior police officer’s tales of how their wives, fabulously talented in business, are the source of all the cash in their bank accounts. They won’t be prosecuted – their worst-case scenario is losing their very lucrative position, and they would still retire comfortably.

And we listen to yet another fulsome promise, yet another speech while people on taxpayer-funded salaries go on catering benchmark trips abroad. The Eurobond explanations flipflop all over the place.

Former president Kibaki had made one credible step with John Githongo’s appointment – but then didn’t back him, didn’t support him, didn’t follow through, and left him out to dry.

We are not even anywhere near this at the moment.

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