Tanzania: How Magufuli's 'Bulldozing' Style Has Won Him Praise and Criticism

Tanzanian President John Magufuli on August 15, 2019.

As President John Magufuli winds up his first term in office and seeks re-election to a second and constitutionally final term this week, Tanzanians can look back upon a raft of significant changes -- both positive and negative -- in his five years at the helm.

While defying scepticism in the early days of his term, President Magufuli has gone a long way in curbing graft, embezzlement of public funds, and instilling frugality and a new work ethic in Tanzania's notoriously lethargic government bureaucrats.

However, he has also drawn heavy criticism at home and abroad for presiding over a steady deterioration of political and democratic space in the country plus a hardline economic stance that pays scant regard to private sector growth.

His no-nonsense style of leadership, including a penchant for firing government officials on the spot or giving them embarrassing dressing-downs in public, has won him admirers and detractors in almost equal measure.

Nicknamed "The Bulldozer", President Magufuli drove a wheel loader through Tanzania's political-economic elite, shaking the status quo to its very foundation. Members of the political and business establishments, in particular, have felt the pain of his tough austerity and anti-corruption measures, which have fuelled elements of factional discontent even within the ruling CCM party. There's plenty to show for the savings.

Roads have been tarmacked in rural and urban areas, and the major Indian Ocean ports at Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Mtwara have seen major upgrades. A modern standard-gauge railway is being built through the country as well as a 2,100-megawatt hydroelectric dam -- the largest in East Africa -- within the famous Stiegler's Gorge national park.

Air Tanzania has been revived with 10 new aircraft and the president has promised five more if re-elected. Work is expected to begin soon on the 1,444-kilometre East African Crude Oil Pipeline from Hoima in Uganda to the port of Tanga in Tanzania.

Economic growth

His signature goal is to turn Tanzania into an industrial economy, and while this may still be a long way off, the country's macroeconomic indicators have remained generally stable during the past five years. According to the Bank of Tanzania, the country has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world in that time and was counted by the International Monetary Fund among the 10 largest economies in Africa as of 2019.

Inflation dropped from 5.6 percent in 2015 when President Magufuli assumed office to 3.4 percent, and the economy is projected to grow at 5.5 percent in 2020 against baseline projections of 6.9 percent before the coronavirus pandemic, the central bank said in a report detailing its achievements over the past five years and released last week.

However, other statistical compilers especially from outside the country offer less flattering perspectives on Tanzania's economic growth prospects.

Last year, the IMF predicted a GDP growth of just four per cent in 2019 and 4.2 per cent in 2020, down from an estimated 6.6 per cent in 2018. In June, the World Bank said Tanzania's GDP would drop even more sharply to just 2.5 per cent in 2020.

While the World Bank attributed its figure to the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, the IMF and other respected monitoring entities, like the international credit ratings agency Moody's, linked poor GDP growth forecasts for Tanzania to erratic policy implementation under the president.

In August, Moody's downgraded its rating for Tanzania from B1 (negative) to B2 (stable) due to what it said was a continuing climate of 'weak governance' and 'policy unpredictability' that undermined future availability of external funding and investment flows for Tanzania and raised liquidity risks for the country.

Leadership style

President Magufuli introduced free education in all public primary and secondary schools early in his tenure, leading to a three-fold increase in pupil enrolment by June.

The number of healthcare facilities has also increased exponentially since 2016 while work continues to connect all Tanzanian villages to the national electricity grid. He famously took on gold mining giants Acacia Mining and Barrick Gold and won better deals for the country.

His leadership style is unorthodox. After refusing to impose the sort of lockdowns adopted by most other countries including Tanzania's neighbours, he made worldwide headlines by announcing in early June that Covid-19 had been eliminated from the country after three days of prayers.

Five months down the road the pandemic has all but disappeared in the country, although the lack of published data makes proof hard to come by.

His administration has also been criticised for focusing more on infrastructural development at the expense of "people-centred" development.

If voters don't get in his way this week expect a lot more bulldozing in his second term.

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