John Magufuli is the Grinch who stole Uhuru, literally and figuratively. He’s also stolen a lot of other things since coming into office less than two months ago. Like luxury travel and other perks for public officials. Like free meals at official meetings. Like fat kickbacks for customs officials at Dar es Salaam port and in the Tanzanian Revenue Authority.
Magufuli, who was only elected as Tanzania’s President on 25 October, has already made lots of enemies among lazy, incompetent, dishonest or arrogant public servants. And many times more friends and admirers than that in the country at large, the region, the continent and the wider world. Though not, surely, in most African state houses.
One of his first acts was to cancel the celebration of Independence Day on 9 December, diverting the budget to street cleaning as part of a new National Day of Cleanliness. Pictures of him participating in that event, collecting rubbish, and then riding back to his office on a bicycle, were transmitted across the region and beyond.
After visiting Dar es Salaam’s Muhimbili Hospital and seeing the awful state it was in – with patients sleeping on the floor or sharing beds – he diverted 200 million shillings budgeted for ‘parliamentary parties’ to buy 300 hospital beds. He also replaced the governing board and cut the spending on his inauguration from US$100 000 to US$7 000 and gave the difference to the hospital.
When he opened the new Parliament he told parliamentary chiefs to slash his speaking time, saying Tanzanians didn’t want to hear speeches, they wanted action. He is continuing in that vein. He recently diverted money budgeted for celebrating World Aids Day to buy antiretroviral drugs for patients.
Such acts of reining in wasteful expenditure in Magufuli’s whirlwind first 40 days or so in office have blazed across the continent and beyond, fuelled by social media. The hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo has gone viral, as citizens of neighbouring countries fantasise about what ‘Magulification’ could do in their countries.
Reveries of Magulification are similarly preoccupying traditional media in the region.
Rasna Warah has written in Kenya’s Daily Nation that ‘The disgustingly conspicuous and gluttonous consumption – at the expense of taxpayers – displayed by our legislators and top civil servants is making Tanzanian President John Magufuli look like a saint.’
In Uganda, Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo has written a satirical piece in The Observer, asking Tanzanians to stop crowing about their new president. Just because Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has not also visited Kampala’s Mulago national referral hospital ‘does not mean he does not care about us and our health. It is because you can afford to lose your president that you would allow him to do such risky things. Do you know how unsafe such hospitals are? Would our president’s security detail fit in those wards?’
Many other African leaders are no doubt dismissing Magufuli’s actions as gimmicky showmanship. But this view would be self-serving and simply wrong because he is not only going after extravagant public servants. He is also going after corrupt officials, in a determined fashion and with a higher and very serious purpose.
When he addressed Parliament last month, Magufuli attributed Tanzania’s development deficit to the country’s failure to attract investment, especially into industry. He blamed two groups of people for this, according to Africa Confidential: ‘leaders like us in here and crooked, deceptive businessmen.’ And so he has launched an investigation into privatised firms to see whether they are making progress since being privatised; if not the firms will be returned to the state for re-sale.
More seriously still, Magufuli has fired the head of the Dar es Salaam ports authority and suspended the chief of the Tanzanian Revenue Authority on suspicion of widespread and long-standing corruption, much of it related to missing import revenues.
What Magufuli is doing – replacing pomp and ceremony with substance and action and going after corrupt officials – is so obvious, so consistently ‘on message’ and so compelling that it could have been scripted by a good public relations company as his election campaign. Yet it seems to be spontaneous and real. These actions did not figure prominently as promises in his election campaign. Reversing the usual pattern, Magufuli promised little and is now delivering much.
How did he happen? Part of the reason may be that he seems to have crept up on the country rather unnoticed. He was something of a compromise presidential candidate for the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has ruled since independence, when it couldn’t resolve the contest over more prominent contenders. Once he became the CCM candidate, however, the nickname ‘Bulldozer’ which he had earned in his previous job as minister of public works should have been a warning of what was to come.
It must be said too that Tanzanians may also thank the country’s strict ‘tradition’ of observing constitutional two-term presidential limits. His predecessor Jakaya Kikwete duly stood down when his two terms expired, creating the possibility for the gust of fresh air which Magufuli is blowing through the rather musty corridors of power.
Whether Magufuli can maintain the momentum, though, remains a big question. He is poking a sharp stick into a large hornet’s test and provoking powerful enemies in Tanzania. He will have to watch his back – especially when riding through the streets of Dar es Salaam on a bicycle, one would assume.
And, apart from the enemies without, what about the enemy within? Will he himself remain as good and clean and fresh as he now looks, for the duration? One recalls that, like him, Museveni and Kagame were once also hailed as a new breed of African leader. Magufuli seems different. The others did not start quite like this. They never had his humility for one thing.
Although Magufuli has gone on to do more concrete things since then, his first act in cancelling the celebration of Independence Day was peculiarly daring and significant, in a symbolic sense. ‘It’s shameful that we’re spending money on independence when our people are dying of cholera,’ he said at the time.
Considering how shaking off the shackles of colonialism has been such a powerful symbol of independent Africa, Magufuli was sending a very strong message to his people and the continent. The almost-exclusive focus on liberating Africa, often neglecting the concrete and contemporary needs of the African people, was the great failure of the Organisation of African Unity. For many African governments, liberating their countries became the sumptuous laurels they could rest very comfortably on. And still rest on today, especially in the more-recently liberated south of the continent.
Magufuli’s central message, instead, is that it is time to rise from those long-wilted laurels and tackle the issues of today. Has he not also cut through the dense undergrowth of excuse-making for Africa’s failures, the diversion of blame to a host of external actors and factors, by simply rolling up his sleeves and getting on with it?