TRANSITION

Magufuli: Nationalist who put Tanzania first

His legacy can best be articulated by Tanzanians who interacted with him and ‘felt’ his leadership

In Summary

• As far as he was concerned, it was either his way or the highway.

• He had little time for regional integration and consequently, the performance of the East Africa Community has been at best lackluster

Tanzania's President John Magufuli warned in January that the days of newspapers his government viewed as unethical "were numbered". /FILE
Tanzania's President John Magufuli warned in January that the days of newspapers his government viewed as unethical "were numbered". /FILE

The late Tanzanian President John Magufuli was a man who did not mince his words when it came to state matters. He was resolute and unwavering.

As far as he was concerned, it was either his way or the highway. It was not uncommon to find him openly berating government officials to the excitement of the masses. Just like most ideologues, he was a populist.

In contrast to his predecessors Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, Magufuli was not keen on diplomatic engagements. Since assuming office in 2015, he has made only a handful of foreign trips. Similar to former US President Donald Trump’s America First policy, Magufuli’s tenure was propelled by nationalism as the guiding ideology.

He had little time for regional integration and consequently, the performance of the East Africa Community has been at best lackluster. Kenya has borne the brunt of Magufuli’s ideological approach — from banning dairy products, burning chicks to arbitrary arrests of Kenyans, the list is endless. In his mind, he perceived Kenya as Tanzania’s regional competitor and hence a threat to its interests.

Consequently, while he treated the landlocked states of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi with kid gloves, largely to entice them away from the port of Mombasa, he wielded a big stick when it came to Kenya. This led to a frosty, almost hostile diplomatic relation with Nairobi.

Perhaps if Raila Odinga had won the presidency, the situation would have been different owing to their personal friendship. But again, statecraft and friendship are different.

Magufuli’s tenure has been paradoxical; he decisively won his first term in 2015 against Edward Lowassa. He was elected on an anti-corruption platform. He did manage to shake things up in the government by rooting our lethargic officers and investing heavily in infrastructural projects, a continuation of the work he started as Public Works minister.

When he took over the reins of power from Kikwete, Tanzania was being hailed as a stable and progressive democratic state by most observers. However, despite the huge popularity among citizens at the beginning of his term, he gradually started exhibiting authoritarianism tendencies. The freedom of speech and expression in Tanzania was greatly curtailed. The media has been muzzled and journalists have paid the ultimate price for daring to speak truth to power. Tundu Lissu, a prominent opposition politician and later his main rival in the presidential contest miraculously survived an assassination attempt.

The 2020 General Election, where Magufuli won by a landslide, was generally a sham. Most observers kept off. The security apparatus was activated to stifle the opposition. 

Under Magufuli, the democratic space in Tanzania has shrunk considerably and the country is, for all intent and purposes, an authoritarian state.

The second paradox is that while Magufuli was a trained scientist, he defied the logic and empirical evidence of science as far as Covid-19 is concerned. Instead, he relied on intuitive belief.

For him, God had saved Tanzania from the pandemic and he thus saw no need of putting in place Covid-19 control measures. He was also highly critical of Covid vaccines. Just like Trump, this denialism might prove costly to Tanzania in terms of lives and livelihoods.

Having said that, there is no doubt President Magufuli was a patriot who gave his all for his beloved country. Having been born and brought up in a humble set-up on the shores of Lake Victoria, his story can serve as an inspiration to millions of young people that their past should not define their destiny.

His legacy can best be articulated by Tanzanians who interacted with him and ‘felt’ his leadership. For East Africans and Kenyans in particular, we can only hope that President Suluhu Hassan will be more enthusiastic towards the EAC. A stable and prosperous Tanzania is a blessing to Kenya and her other neighbours. Our existence is inextricably linked hence the need for cordial engagements.

Kwa ndugu zetu waTanzania, nawaombea subra na ustahimilivu mnapo pitia wakati huu mngumu wa maombolezi.Makiwa.

Sammy Gatere is a political analyst and operations manager Pride of East Africa Ltd