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Why Magufuli was loved and loathed at home and abroad

By Barrack Muluka | March 20th 2021

Commiserations with the sister nation of Tanzania are in order, following the death of President John Pombe Magufuli (pictured). Humans are bonded in a common silent pact against death. The English poet John Donne wrote in 1623, “No man is an island entire of itself... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  

East Africa and the rest of the world are diminished by this death. We are bound together, as we should be, in grief and mourning the passing of a man of character. Magufuli played on the East African stage over a very short season, compared to others who have risen to the majestic heights that he occupied in his later years. While there, he took the place by storm.

His passing reminds you of Thomas Hardy’s original title for the book that was eventually published as The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). Hardy serialised this remarkably rich story as a narrative titled, “The Life and Death of a Man of Character.”

Like Mayor Michael Henchard, Magufuli was a man of character. Both were strong men with mortal human weaknesses. Magufuli’s nationalist spirit closely mirrored that of President Donald Trump.

Where Trump would say, America first,” Magufuli would quip, “Tanzania first.” That is, indeed, why people are elected to high office. They go there primarily to serve their nations and nationals. Everyone else is in the second row onwards, up to wherever the rows may end.  The Tanzanian man of character moved his country from the backwaters of underdevelopment to a middle-income nation within five years. It is a tribute to his self-discipline and the standards he expected of everyone else. East Africa recalls his style of management by walking about (mbwa). It sent chills down many spines, making Tanzanians awake to the call of duty. He fought corruption and malaise at work. He fired on the spot those who slept on the job. He ruled Tanzania with an iron fist, in search of excellence. The ordinary people loved him. The rest feared him. His ultra-nationalism was at once a strength and a weakness. He seemed to hold the region in spite and the entire continent in contempt. His government will be remembered as the authoritarian regime that burned thousands of Kenyan chicks and auctioned Kenyan cattle that strayed into Tanzania. Kenyan business people had a series of problems at border points, most of them driven by what looked like whimsical state fiat. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta has diplomatically described Magufuli as a Pan-Africanist. This is a tactful but doubtful descriptor. Under Magufuli’s regime, Kenya was increasingly – and without method whatsoever – isolated in crucial trade and transport deals in the region. In 2016, Tanzania suddenly refused to sign the trade accord between the East African Community and the European Union, throwing the region – and especially Kenya – into a muddle. At the continental level, he did not think much of the African Union (AU). He only attended one AU meeting in his first five years. Yet, we learn from him that the road to loss is often paved in good intentions. The strong man of character often has fatal human weaknesses. These may contribute to the demise of such a man, and others too.

Kinjeketile was a traditional healer in colonial Tanganyika. He gave the people concoctions of water which, he said, would defuse German bullets during the Maji Maji Rebellion of 1905 – 1907. Kinjeketile is accused of leading people to their death, by encouraging them to confront bullets with water. The Germans hanged him in 1906, for what they called treason. Was Magufuli a later day Kinjeketile? He told Tanzanians to ignore science and confront the new coronavirus with prayers.   

The late Tanzanian president liked his nickname of Bulldozer. He bullied his way everywhere. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the BBC that Magufuli fought business and commerce, in place of fighting corruption. He saw him as a micro manager who did not hesitate to walk to a business facility to personally order it closed.  In the same vein, he would visit a state entity and dismiss officials by word of mouth. “From now you are no longer working for the government of the United Republic of Tanzania,” he would say with a superior snort. And it would be. You were fired. 

The heavy hand spared nobody. Lissu was once soaked in a hailstorm of bullets, by people believed to have been state operatives. Other leaders were exiled while some just disappeared.  Journalists and civil society had it rough. Eric Kabendera is still facing unspecified court charges. He was previously detained for seven months, without trial. Azory Gwanda, another journalist, disappeared while in police custody. Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi, casually reported that he was dead. That was the value of life under him. 

It was however Magufuli’s curious management of the Covid-19 that confounded the world most. A corona-skeptic strongman, Magufuli made it almost a crime to mention the word Covid. He rubbished global Covid interventions and safety protocols. It is just possible that Nemesis brought corona into his yard to visit retribution on him. Meanwhile, East Africa will continue to reflect on lessons from Tanzania, even as the region appreciates that the death of one man diminishes us all. Fare thee well, John Pombe Magufuli. We will meet in the great beyond. 

-The writer is a strategic public communications advisor.  

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