Despite his shortcomings, Magufuli was a great leader

The late John Pombe Magufuli. [Courtesy]

Tanzania and East Africa are in mourning following the death of President John Pombe Magufuli on Wednesday at a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

While formally making the announcement, Vice President Samia Suluhu said Magufuli succumbed to a heart ailment that he had battled for about 10 years. That put an end to two weeks of speculation over the president's whereabouts and health.

Ms Suluhu announced a 14-day mourning period, during which flags will be flown at half-mast. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced seven days of mourning, during which flags will be flown at half-mast countrywide and in our diplomatic missions abroad.

Tanzanians have lost a respected, indefatigable and much loved president. His leadership style endeared him to Tanzanians and other people in East and Central Africa.

Magufuli came to power in 2015 with such enthusiasm and a no-nonsense approach to leadership that some Kenyans wished they had their own Magufuli. Indeed, some of them saw a reflection of Magufuli in the then Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i, who took bold and tough measures to bring the malaise of examination cheating to an end.

Across Africa, admirers of the Tanzanian President borrowed a leaf from him and adopted a no-nonsense style of leadership, prompting renowned orator, lawyer and academic PLO Lumumba to give speeches in universities calling for 'Magufulification of Africa'. In itself, that was an acknowledgement of the momentum that Magufuli had injected into leadership in Africa.

Magufuli stood out strongly against corruption that, clearly, is responsible for the economic stagnation that many African countries find themselves in. Under Magufuli, the lackadaisical approach to work that many senior public servants exhibit in African countries was enough to earn one a dismissal. He did not countenance failure on the part of those who failed to deliver services.

His tours across the country put leaders on toes and ensured that government institutions did what they were set up to do. Magufuli was so inspirational that netizens introduced the Twitter hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo to demonstrate their love for him.

Under him, Tanzania experienced improved infrastructural development. Magufuli introduced an efficient Bus Rapid Transport in Dar es Salaam that is the envy of many in the region. Electricity production increased under Magufuli, and this was instrumental in reducing perennial power rationing.

But like every great man or woman, Magufuli had his shortcomings. In his determination to get things going, he became dictatorial, demanding that things should be done his way. Media freedom and freedom of expression, key manifestations of functional democracies, suffered greatly under his rule. Opposition leaders in Tanzania have often complained of harassment and intimidation by State agencies. Many live outside Tanzania out of fear for their lives.

During the campaign period for the October 2020 elections, media freedom was muzzled. Nothing could be broadcast or published without State approval. In breach of media freedom, State agents were attached to selected local and foreign journalists to ensure they reported only what was favourable to government.

However, it was Magufuli’s cavalier attitude towards Covid-19 that shocked many. From the outset, he declared that Covid-19 was a hoax by Western countries and outrightly dismissed it. His disdain was apparent when he declared that samples discreetly taken from human beings, sheep, oil and papaya and taken for testing had turned positive for Covid-19.

To show defiance, he did not order a lockdown of Tanzania, neither did he order closure of schools like other countries did. To him, belief in God and prayer were sufficient to rid Tanzania of Covid-19. But that, clearly, did not work. There are reports that Covid-19 is widespread in Tanzania. But we can't tell how many people died of the disease after the president halted the counting.

Even while mourning, there is a lot we can learn from Magufuli's life. For now, we ask his successor to ignore Magufuli's 'policy' and take Covid-19 with the seriousness it deserves.