Was Magufuli the benevolent or petty dictator of our time?

Magufuli’s motivation to use religion, it appears, was more about the fear for his re-election

In Summary

• He took public and private sector corruption head on, firing corrupt officials on the spot

•  Hehas also been accused of being a dictator; Very intolerant to dissent starting from CCM, banning opposition rallies and shutting media houses

The late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli.
The late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli.
Image: Courtesy

The demise of President John Magufuli has attracted a lot of attention in Kenya, Africa and globally.

Magufuli wasn’t very celebrated by world leaders per se but he was popular amongst the people because he was seen to be genuinely interested in making a difference for wananchi in what came to be known as Magufulify.

For example, upon election, he took a pay cut from $15,000 to only $ 4,000, a move that many wouldn’t dare attempt. He further reduced international travels, saving his country over $430 million. This was very commendable as many public officials travel for the per diem appetite.

Magufuli who was literary an outsider candidate within Tanzania’s ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi was the compromise candidate against five others, including Edward Lowasa, January Makamba, Asha Rose Migiro and Bernard Membe, due to his acceptability across board.

He took public and private sector corruption head on, firing corrupt officials on the spot, and forced private companies to come clean on their tax evasion measures.

He also raided the Tanzania Revenue Authority and with this, the revenues trebled hence giving him the much-needed money to build infrastructure across the country.

Magufuli had made a name as minister for Infrastructure by ensuring cheap but quality roads through the reduction of time between design and procurement, hence reducing corruption. He would even order contractors to redo roads that were poorly done against set specifications.

As a result, he was able to build the Terminal II of the Julius Kambarage Nyerere airport at a fraction of the cost that Kenya used for a similar project. The same case applies to SGR, whereby the Tanzanian one cost much less.

This he was able to do through proper fiscal discipline without relying on foreign debt as has been the case in Kenya. This and other infrastructural projects that have been financed domestically have earned him accolades.

He also undertook to revive the Tanzanian Airways by purchasing 12 new aircrafs, the Bus Rapid Transport in Dar, and improved access to quality medical health facilities.

On education, he introduced free primary education that saw millions of children join school. He also banned export of unprocessed mineral ores due to the undervaluing of raw materials and he repealed the mining act to give more stakes to the Tanzanian people through their government. This way, he was able to get more revenues for Tanzania from its gold and even secured a 16 per cent stake in the gold mines. This has been one of the issues that have left Africa impoverished for decades, despite having rich natural resources.


However, Magufuli has also been accused of being a dictator; Very intolerant to dissent starting from CCM, whereby he expelled his main challenger, Benard Membe, for wanting to challenge him for the presidential nominations in the 2020 elections.

He cracked down on the opposition, going ahead to ban political rallies for four years. He limited live parliamentary proceedings to avoid government criticism and rigged out the opposition Chadema party to having only two elected members and 19 women, who were allegedly fraudulently nominated by forging the signature of the secretary general of the party.

He further warned that those who he had nominated should always toe his line or else they would face his wrath.

He further curtailed press freedom by requiring online bloggers to get licenses, arresting and harassing journalists, some of whom were kidnapped without trace. His critics were arbitrarily arrested and detained without trial.

He also handled Covid-19 pandemic poorly, which cost the lives of many senior govt officials, including his Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga and himself eventually, as he also had a pre-existing heart condition.

Magufuli’s motivation to use religion, it appears, was more about the fear for his re-election since as it was widely thought the pandemic would suppress turn out and many world leaders facing elections or opposition used the containment measures or denial of the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on their competitors. For Magufuli, religion provided a good enough reason to aid his re-election.

Further, the spraying of 38 bullets on his main challenger Tundu Lissu at the parking lot of Parliament — only two hours after he had warned of dire consequences to the opposition and after being arrested severally for ‘insulting’ the President — is quite telling.

His democratic record and the respect for human rights weren’t enviable and it begs the question, did he have to do all these in exchange for development, or was there a better way of achieving the same without cracking on dissent?

Magufuli also orchestrated the change the constitution chorus in CCM to remove term limits, though this didn’t succeed.

Lissu is still undergoing reconstructive surgery in Belgium, while nobody was ever arrested following the assassination attempt.

This begs the question, is Magufuli the benevolent or ‘petty’ dictator of our time?