Last week #WhatWouldMagufuliDo was trending on twitter as people, inspired by the frugal and conscientious leadership of Tanzania’s new president, John Pompe Magufuli, created memes in which they forego expensive options for more economic ones.
In many ways it is another new dawn for Tanzania, reminiscent of the days of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding president, a man famed for his spendthrift ways and his idealism.
On October 29, 2015, Magufuli was announced the 5th President of the United Republic of Tanzania. The announcement was received with excitement by many Tanzanians. There was, to be sure, grumbling. Edward Lowassa, who carried the banner for the opposition coalition, UKAWA, claimed the polls had been stolen.
Magufuli’s win was accompanied by a first: Tanzania got their first female vice president, Hon. Samiha Suluhu. One month since his election, people’s sentiments towards him have changed, even those who didn’t vote for him. Magufuli has kick-started his term by making radical changes in the way things are done by the government.
The president’s visits to ministries and institutions used to be a pageant: there would be a long entourage of cars filled with various dignitaries. Civil servants, dressed in their best suits, would regale the president on the good work they are doing. But those days are gone.
In the first week of his presidency, Magufuli made impromptu visits to the Ministry of Finance and the Muhimbili national hospital. After visiting the Ministry of Finance, he announced that all foreign trips for ministers and government officials were suspended, that diplomats stationed outside the country can act on behalf of the country without the need for travel; in the event that the diplomats couldn’t act on behalf of the ministers, officials would have to get special permission from his office to travel.
True to his word, he cut down the number of Commonwealth Forum delegates from 50 to 4. On his visit to Muhimbili hospital, the president was saddened to see the parlous state of the hospital: the lack of beds and broken CT scan and MRI machines. He ordered that the machines be repaired and, within a couple of days, the machines were working. He also dissolved the hospital board and transferred the hospital’s executive director.
To skeptics, this seemed like post-inauguration hype and lip homage and that things would go back to business as usual in no time. Perhaps in time Tanzania will revert to her old self, though the signs of a return to old Tanzania are not promising. Yet to most people’s surprise, the president seems keen to stay true to his campaign slogan – Hapa Kazi tu (Just work) and to keep his promise to confront vices that derail the country from prosperity.
Just a week later, he cut down parliament’s inauguration party expenditure from 300 Million Tanzanian Shillings to 25 Million TZS (US$ 140,000 to US$ 12,000), and ordered that the money be used to buy beds for the hospital. On Monday, 23th November, the president announced that there would be no festivities on Independence Day, December 9; instead people should engage on clean up exercises to combat the ongoing cholera outbreak.
He was appalled that after 54 years of independence, we are still at risk from cholera and other avoidable diseases. This move touched my heart. Dirt has become such a normal part of our streets that we no longer complain about it. I was proud of a president that cared about hygiene, the people’s health and the environment. He has made everyone see that cleanliness, and combating cholera, is primarily our responsibility and not just of the ministry of health or the World Health Organisation.
2014 Independence Day celebrations. Photo: Izikulu blog
While some people were still complaining about how the cancellation of Independence Day meant that the new president doesn’t value the nation’s past heroes, the president further announced that he would no longer entertain work meetings that are done at hotels or outside work facilities. This was just another reckless way of spending taxpayers’ money. For people whose offices were in different regions and who needed to hold meetings, the president suggested video-conferencing as an alternative. He also announced in the same week that World AIDS day national celebrations were cancelled, and that the money would be used to buy much needed ARVs instead.
While we were still contemplating the two cancellations, JPM, as most people call him, announced that government offices no longer had budgets to decorate offices for Christmas. This was another way to misuse funds as most offices drafted outrageous budgets and spent only a fraction of it for decorations while the rest ended up in the pockets of a few.
That’s it, there is no more Christmas for Tanzania, and by Christmas I mean the rampant misuse of government funds for personal gain and the frivolous!
Those who had voted for him with personal agendas were also disappointed. He refused personal visits to congratulate him, and nor is he taking their calls.
Since his inauguration, Dr. Magufuli has made more tough decisions in one month than any of his previous predecessors. Serving in his government will not be a walk in the park for most. The Prime Minister, Majaliwa Kassim Majaliwa, who was appointed on November 19, seems to speak the same language as the president. Majaliwa made an impromptu visit to the Tanzania Ports Authority where he uncovered that 350 shipments recorded in the books of the the ports authority were not reported in the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) ledgers, resulting in a loss of TZS 80 Billion in revenues. Magufuli suspended the commissioner General (CG) of TRA to allow for thorough investigation; he also immediately appointed a new person to act as the CG.
Magufuli seems to be resurrecting Thomas Sankara’s philosophy that working for the government isn’t a license to live extravagantly at the state’s expense. These changes happening in Tanzania are also taking place in China. The Xi Jinping government recently punished university chiefs for driving fancy cars and extravagant partying. Yet while the excitement is going on, I still wonder if there is more to his plan than just cost-cutting. What he should do is make sure that Tanzania’s abundant resources benefit the nation, especially the poor, and that sectors that can be our competitive advantage are well developed. Given what he has done in the past few weeks, we await the next radical thing that Magufuli will do.