Tanzania’s John Pombe Magufuli is dead. After three weeks of fevered speculation, the demise of Tanzania’s fifth president was announced by his Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan on March 17.
First sworn in 5 November, 2015, Magufuli had been a towering presence in the country’s political landscape. Nicknamed “the bull dozer,” Magufuli rode into power acclaimed for his no-nonsense style of active leadership. As minister and then President, Magufuli was famed for his impromptu spot checks on how government programmes and offices were functioning.
On his first day in office, Magufuli stunned finance ministry officials by turning up to assess their work. Junior officials were forced to scramble to save the faces of their superiors who were found missing at their desk.
In a continuing crackdown on government waste, Magufuli cancelled extravagant independence day celebrations. He decreed that the budget be used to buy drugs to fight a cholera outbreak and buy hospital beds.
Magufuli also banned government officials from unnecessary travel abroad, apart from the president, vice-president and prime minister.
Perhaps not since Tanzania’s founder president Julius Nyerere had the head of state been seen to weld his power with quick, public decision making. Presidents since revered Nyerere had opted to govern by consensus through the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
Magufuli’s leadership style that encouraged unconventional thinking and cost cutting caught the imagination of East Africans triggering a hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo?
However, some worried that Magufuli’s sweeping powers granted by the constitution imperilled basic freedoms.
Tanzania, for example, started to crackdown on how citizens could express themselves on the internet. In 2018, at the instigation of Magufuli, Tanzania introduced registration and annual licence fees for all online media that added up to roughly $920.
According to The Financial Times explained, the online content regulations, which also cover the traditional media’s online platforms, social media and owners of internet cafés, require providers to pay 1.1m Tanzanian shillings ($480) for a three-year licence, plus an annual fee of $440.
Registration requirements include full personal and tax details of the applicant plus any shareholders and the likely nature of future content.
A litany of banned material includes any that “causes annoyance” and “uses bad language”. The maximum penalty for violating the rules is a fine of $2,200 and 12 months’ in jail.
Tanzanian artists and socialites soon fell afoul of the new regulations, including the country’s most popular export Diamond Platnumz.
Reuters reported that the ward-winning 28-year old singer Nassib Abdul, whose stage name is Diamond Platnumz, was detained after sharing a video clip with his 4.5 million followers on Instagram that showed him kissing a girl.
But concerns about Magufuli’s leadership would come to a head during the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. In July 2020 Magufuli was nominated as the CCM’s presidential candidate in elections scheduled for October 2020.
His nomination was not opposed after the expulsion from the party earlier in the year of Bernard Membe, a former foreign minister who had planned to challenge the nomination. He received the highest votes and was therefore re-elected to extend his presidency until 2025 for a second term.
According to Al Jazeera, “The election was marred by allegations of arrests of candidates and protesters, restrictions on agents of political parties to access polling stations, multiple voting, pre-ticking of ballots, and widespread blocking of social media.”
A local elections watchdog group noted a heavy deployment of military and police whose conduct created a “climate of fear”.
Shortly after Magufuli’s victory, the country’s main opposition politician Tundu Lissu fled into exile, seeking asylum in Belgium in November, 2020. Many commentators regarded his flight as a response to a 2017 attempt on his life when Lissu was shot several times.
He would need over 20 operations in Kenya and Belgium to recover and try to run for the top spot in Tanzania. More opposition politicians continued to flee the country.
Perhaps it will be Magufuli’s handling, or mishandling of the Coronavirus outbreak that will come to define his presidency.
A trained Chemist and Maths teacher, Magufuli dismissed COVID-19 as a hoax and declared Tanzanians would be saved by prayer and herbal steam baths.
This is the stance he has maintained until his shocking departure from the political scene.
Magufuli leaves Tanzania in the hands of possibly the region’s first female President Samia Suluhu Hassan.