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We deserve to know where President John Magufuli is

By Andrew Kipkemboi | Mar 15th 2021 | 4 min read
President John Pombe Magufuli at a past event in Chato Town, Northern Tanzania. [Courtesy]

Their political rallies are not the rumbustious type as happens in Kenya or Uganda. For a taste of political ruckus, the joke among Tanzania’s chattering classes goes, most tune into Kenyan TV stations, where this is served daily.

The Tanzanians stand out as the most polite, patriotic and cohesive of most African countries. In Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Paul Collier an Oxford University professor of development economics, argues that creating a national identity helps to trump politics of ethnic division by persuading people not to vote blindly for the party of their ethnic group (as happened in 2008 in Kenya) but for the party with policies geared towards development and progress and stability.

Thanks to its past leaders and (especially) strong political institutions, including the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi, change has come without much disruption for them. Because of this, Tanzania has been saved from the political gangsterism prevalent elsewhere in Africa.

Its founding President Julius Nyerere's embrace of socialism, popularised under the Ujamaa villages, is credited for Tanzanians' love for country and the laid-back nature of the citizens.

Tanzanians revel in their national identity, which at times shades into nativism. Yet, compared to Kenya and Uganda, its closest neighbours, Tanzania has far less to show for all its peace and political stability.

Uganda has had several bloody coups, the worst during the reign of Idi Amin Dada in the 1970s. Though relatively peaceful, Kenya has been rocked by unsuccessful coups and has suffered bouts of tribal violence.

Tanzania is mineral-rich. It boasts gold, diamond, Tanzanite and other pricy minerals. But alas, Tanzania, with a 58 million population, has punched below its weight. Its GDP of $62.2 billion is less Kenya’s ($101.05) with 50 million people. Rwanda, with a population five times less, has a GDP per capita of $750, compared to Tanzania's $1,122. Kenya's is $1,816.

But corruption, political patronage, poor infrastructure, unfriendly business environment that hobbles the growth of private sector and unreliable power have continually undermined Tanzania's progress.

The election of President John Pombe Magufuli in 2015, therefore, offered Tanzania and the region a fresh breath of air. Mr Magufuli's earnest war against the status quo reverberated across the region, demonstrating that it was possible to match words with action.

He showed that the presidency is not as powerless as some would have us believe, and that with goodwill the top office can set a nation on a good path. In 2016 Tanzania attracted a substantial foreign direct investment (over $2.5 billion), making it the first Foreign Direct Investment destination in the region.

Recognising the grave effects of corruption and inefficiency, Magufuli slowly, but surely, dismantled the corrupt networks - that fed off red tape and bureaucracy, suffocating the promise of Tanzania.

He sacked Edward Hoseah, the long-serving Director General of the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau, for seemingly doing too little to fight the vice. He also banned inessential foreign travel for politicians and business class flights for all, but the most senior government officials. He eschews foreign travel.

Magufuli was omnipresent, often moving around and firing public officers seemingly absent from work or doing too little to make lives of ordinary Tanzanians better. But alas, the shine seemingly came off too soon.

The cynics who had dismissed his actions as raw zeal fired up by the excitement of new office, felt vindicated when the ogre in him came out. There were grave signs that he had degenerated into a demagogue afflicted by the Big Man Syndrome. He came down hard on anyone criticising his style of leadership, including the media, and squeezed the life out of the Opposition and the civil society.

But his bizarre stand on the causes and the spread of Covid-19 pandemic frightened many. Here was a man trained in Chemistry doubting science.

For a moment, many took him literally, but not seriously. Perhaps it was vintage Magufuli - unpredictable, unconventional. Then he disappeared from the public two weeks ago and the absence of information - partly because the media has been cowed into silence – the rumour mill has been thick with unconfirmed reports about his health.

For a man who relished in the unconventional and who was too quick to let people know what was on his mind, the fear of the worst is understandable. If nothing, Tanzanians (and the rest of the region) deserve to know where Magufuli is and what has kept him away from the public.

Mr Kipkemboi is Partnerships and Special Projects Editor, Standard Group

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