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Even scholars are split over Magufuli's legacy

By Babere Chacha, John Wahome | April 7th 2021

It is emerging that the late John Magufuli (pictured) — a man routinely lionised by Tanzanians — created obvious assets to himself: A familiar name, a charming personality and immense political populism across Tanzania. His widely admired integrity, engaging and imperturbable geniality, prodigious memory and a unique administrative style summed up the personal qualities of the man many Tanzanians hoped would transform their country.    

It is a veritable uphill task to attempt to consolidate all the academic interpretations and viewpoints of Magufuli’s legacy. However, there are immense facts and data from which to try reverse engineering his true image. Indeed, the Dr Magufuli conundrum is likely to haunt the social sciences for ages. Mere interpretation of politics by politics may never successfully unravel the mystery of the man who so rocked Tanzania’s public sphere in a mere decade. 

A particularly seductive intellectual pleasure for academics is to be caught up within an active body of scholars who share a common sense of what is important in their field of study. This manifested itself at Laikipia University, where scholars were recently deeply divided over the legacy of Magufuli, which has been an engaging subject in the local campus pavement politics and cyber dialogue.

The fiercest debate took place over three days of intense academic exchanges over Whatsapp-the messaging app which is quickly transforming into a serious intellectual platform. It was Dr Kenneth Nyangena, a recent graduate from the Open University in Tanzania, who triggered this academic ‘stampede’ by copiously praising Magufuli and his economic nationalism, and celebrating how he saved and liberated Tanzania from the yoke of contemporary imperialism. 

On the one hand, there are those dominated by extreme idealism, believing in the inviolability and dignity of the rule of law, the practice of democracy and human rights, sanctity of individual freedoms, limited government, and legitimacy of power. These argued vehemently that the key to both international peace and the emancipation of humanity from injustice is absolute adherence to human rights protocols. They therefore took a particularly dim view of Magufuli’s strongman disposition and his apparent intolerance to criticism, arguing that he was grossly overrated and that his image remains ‘sanitised’ only as a result of the African cultural value of not talking ill of departed souls. 

But the bitterest ire was reserved for “Magufuli’s ideological and economic war with Kenya” and his being “paranoid about Kenya to the point of burning chicken imported from Kenya and confiscating cattle from hapless Maasai”, and “closing off goods from Kenya at the slightest provocation.” They argued however, that mixing economic reforms with liberal democracy is a dominant idea in re-shaping the political and economic structures of African countries and as such Tanzania should be judged that way. One participant boldly stated that “Kibaki did much more than Magufuli without terrorising anybody.”

The other category comprised of realists whose worldviews are shaped by the idea that states reserve the right to exercise overarching power, and that repudiation of democracy may sometimes be necessary if it is for the common good. These saw Magufuli as a reincarnation of benevolent authoritarian rule in Africa. 

Their overly romantic view of Magufuli was however countered by a claim that Magufuli - an apparent democrat at the onset-had progressively become an explicit authoritarian who embodied the illusion of invulnerability - which he was unable to conceal in his lion-like communications laced with linguistic chauvinism. His banning of political activities on the pretext of their interfering with “nation building projects” was interpreted as an unmistakable hallmark of a tin pot dictator.

The debate soon drifted to comparing the Kenyan dream and the Tanzanian renaissance. Arguments made in favour of Magufuli dwelt on his economic reforms which sharply contrasted with the entrenched multi-billion pilferage across the border in Kenya, a country on paper subscribing to the Western democratic model. Magufuli of course had human rights issues on his style of governance but on his economic reforms were unparalleled in Eastern Africa. He is credited for bringing Tanzania to a medium level economy. Unlike Kenya, his country never haemorrhaged a shameful ‘two billion shillings a day’. Tearful and sniffling emojis proliferated when the debate turned to how glorious Kenya would be in the absence of its run-away corruption.

Are contemporary Africans ready to pay the price of roadside sackings, muzzling of free speech, and political intolerance to have benevolent dictatorships? Tanzanian economy has improved, yes, but at what cost? Would Kenyans countenance the denial of education to pregnant girls, or the downplaying of Covid protocols, or more still, the persecution of opposition politicians, aka Tundu Lissu? 

The complex timeline of African democracy has featured bursts of success and failure, progress and regression with Tanzania as a case. Ultimately, Laikipia scholars agreed on two common facts, firstly that many authoritarian rulers have simply learned how to master and manipulate the new environment of democracy and that the African experience has largely demonstrated that the rule of law and conditions of democratic spirit in Africa largely depend on the quality of leaders, political institutions, and continued external support.

In sum, this is how the ‘Laikipia Debate’, probably a microcosm of many similar ongoing debates, evaluated the Magufuli legacy. We can safely say that the debating scholars posthumously awarded Magufuli ‘passed with corrections.’

-Dr Chacha and Dr Wahome teach at Laikipia University

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