Tanzania: Opinion - Tanzania's Magufuli Was Both Revered and Reviled

Tanzania President John Magufuli casting his vote in Dodoma.
opinion

Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli has died after weeks out of the public eye. He will we be remembered for reasons both good and bad, says DW's Mohammed Khelef.

Tanzania's government says President John Pombe Magufuli died as a result of a heart condition.

This follows weeks of speculation that his absence from public view would prove to be as ironic as it was tragic: that having ignored and laughed in the face of international guidelines published by the World Health Organization (WHO), the 61-year-old might have contracted COVID-19 himself.

Whatever the cause of death, his passing highlights the painful division that runs through the heart of Tanzania.

Many people sincerely believe President Magufuli was truly the best leader Tanzania ever had, tackling issues at every imaginable level of government. Many others think he was the worst president possible, crushing human rights and intimidating those who spoke against him.

Riding these two extremes was a talent that Magufuli knew how to use to his advantage.

The Magufuli brand of politics

Magufuli came to power in 2015 following a campaign in which he had declared war on corruption. Upon his victory, his supporters were quick to elevate him to the level of a savior sent to save their nation -- despite the fact that the election win did not exactly come as a surprise since his Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), party or its political predecessor, has been ruling Tanzania since the country's independence in the early 1960s.

But part of the reason why Magufuli attracted so much attention was the fact that he managed to quickly establish his own brand of governance.

Magufuli used and misused the country's constitution repeatedly to achieve his ends, even if that meant endangering lives and livelihoods. It doesn't take a legal eagle to suggest that he singlehandedly managed to turn the presidential institution into something rather akin to a monarchy within a few short years, though many experts have indeed supported this view.

A new age in Tanzanian politics

Magufuli ultimately built the Tanzania he wanted. He and his appointees within the government and his party even took to using the term "Magufuli's Tanzania" -- and they certainly meant it.

Instead of seeking consensus and compromise, Magufuli stood out for his dominating style of leadership, issuing commands and orders to those seen not to comply.

To his credit, his system worked -- to some extent: there were several occasions on which he proved he could solve challenges big and small in almost an instant. He soon became known as a man who put his money where his mouth is -- even though that money wasn't always his to spend.

Government by the people, of the people -- but for the people?

Magufuli knew how to sell that brand to the people: Once he was seen handing money to a woman whose pastry business had reportedly gone bankrupt. On other occasions, he would have directors of public bodies fired if those on the lower echelons of the ladder had filed complaints. His every move was an extension of his election and reelection campaign, making him a uniquely hands-on leader in the African context.

Within a few short years, he had become the problem-solver-in-chief, with people from all backgrounds approaching him to sort issues out for them. He took his popularity and turned it into populism.

Not only did Magufuli appear to distrust those working for him and under him, he also got much of the populace to follow his authoritarian style. Public harassment, humiliation and threats became common methods in dealing to those that Magufuli deemed to be in the wrong -- and many citizens believed him and followed their leader, as true to his brand, everything was reportedly done for them.

Between Magunomics and Magucracy

Despite his questionable leadership, Magufuli will be associated with the construction of major infrastructures in Tanzania -- such as the Central Railway Project, the Stiegler's Gorge Dam, and the completion of some projects that had been started during past administrations. His aggressive way of getting things done was frequently referred to as Magunomics -- especially by those who benefited from his actions.

But the other side to Magufuli that many did not like -- Magucracy -- will equally be remembered as part of his legacy; being laws, regulations and even the constitution to pursue his own ends while promoting this as the public good.

Some people saw through his deceit and turned against him; but many Tanzanians continued to support the president who would ban opposition parties from holding rallies between election seasons; the leader who banned pregnant girls from school after giving birth; the head-of-state who was happy to ignore international protocol in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Healing divisions

In the immediate aftermath of Magufuli's death, there will be public mourning and grief for the president; but as far as his longer term legacy goes, there will likely be tears for entirely different reasons.

Magufuli will also be remembered as the president who shut down the media, threatened journalists, detained the rich, activists and politicians, charging them with economic crime cases, as these are not bailable offences under Tanzanian law.

He was also the president who presided over the last two elections -- local council elections in 2019 and the October 2020 general elections, both of which have been reported as being neither free nor fair. And in six short years, Magufuli turned Tanzania into little more than a single political party state, where his ruling CCM party dominated more than 90% of seats in public offices.

Admired to the same degree as he was disliked, Magufuli leaves a behind a country that has to find its identity again in the absence of its divisive leader.

Judging by his legacy, this might not be a bad thing.

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