Magufuli reveals his true colours

After 10 months in office, the Tanzanian president’s reputation for bulldozing through corruption is tainted with concerning reports of suppressing political dissent.

Not long ago, the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? became a rallying cry across East African and continental social media, as ordinary African citizens hailed the astonishing first 100 days of Tanzania’s new President John Magufuli

Chosen by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party as a compromise candidate, the relatively unknown politician won last November’s presidential elections and then immediately set about disrupting business as usual in Tanzania. He quickly became the scourge of the WaBenzi – often, quite literally, ordering ministers and other state mandarins to replace their limousines and 4X4s with humble sedans no larger than 1400cc, and otherwise banning extravagance, pomp and ceremony in favour of getting the work done for ordinary citizens.

‘This is a public service, not a gravy train. Anybody who came here to make riches should quit and join the private sector,’ he thundered. He also took a broadsword to overseas travel by ministers and officials. He himself has been abroad only twice as president, to neighbouring countries Rwanda and Uganda. He has skipped two African Union summits, one Southern African Development Community summit and the current UN General Assembly.

Magufuli was also hailed as the hopeful herald of a new kind of African leader

And he has aggressively attacked corruption and superfluous bureaucracy. The man who had earned the nickname ‘Bulldozer’ when he was minister of public works, fired scores of corrupt officials and slashed kilometres of red tape to get things done.

‘We are not here to rob the average Tanzanian, but to make his life better,’ he said, becoming a president for the people.

Many of those using the #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? hashtag were citizens of other African countries, wishing that Magufuli would come to purge their pompous and corrupt bureaucracies. And Magufuli was also hailed further afield as the hopeful herald of a new kind of African leader. But now, 10 months later, though he still apparently retains popular support, quite a lot of the novelty of ‘the Magufuli way’ has begun to wear off.

The #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? hashtag is not used nearly as much as it was. And the tone has changed. This week, for instance, one K Manchester tweeted: ‘#WhatWouldMagufuliDo? Jail Tanzanians for airing political opinions on social media. Get over it Mags.’

Magufuli’s suppression of political dissent is raising concerns, also among foreign investors

For, indeed, the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court last week had just charged five people for insulting Magufuli on social media under a new cyber-crimes law.

The ‘insults,’ at least by South African standards, were remarkably mild – though clearly increasingly apt. ‘I don’t know what is going on in JPM’s head… He doesn’t even know how to say sorry. We are at this stage because of one person who believes that what he thinks is always right… he needs to understand that politics isn’t about resentment and the opposition isn’t an enemy… he should learn to compete with the opposition on the basis of debate, not force,’ said one.

Indeed. Several people have been charged under the same law and in June, one of them was sentenced to three years in prison and a Sh7 million (US$3 190) fine. Magufuli’s government has also banned three newspapers, mainly for ‘inflammatory’ reporting, and closed two radio stations for broadcasting ‘seditious’ material.

In June, police outlawed all protests as the main opposition planned rallies against what it called Magufuli’s ‘dictatorship’. Last month, Edward Lowassa, leader of the main opposition Chadema party, and several of his officials were reportedly arrested for inciting people to join in a mass ‘Day of Defiance’ protest that was planned for 1 September, but has now been postponed for a month while religious leaders try to mediate.

Is Magufuli shaping up in the familiar, authoritarian mould of a Paul Kagame?

Magufuli’s suppression of political dissent is now starting to raise concerns, not only among Tanzanians and democracy defenders, but also among foreign investors, who fear it may stoke political instability in a country long regarded as a pillar of regional stability.

Investors are increasingly eyeing Tanzania’s natural resources, including the continent’s third-largest gold reserves and an estimated 57 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But they are starting to get wary.

And it’s not just the growing political uncertainty, but also Magufuli’s high-handed and typically bulldozing approach to business itself that is causing concern. Bloomberg recently quoted the research group africapractice as saying, in a 30 August report, that Magufuli’s aggressive push to register immediate results with his economic reforms was posing risks for private businesses.

The report said that Magufuli was largely sticking to market-oriented policies – but businesses were becoming worried about his introduction of many new VAT and import taxes, and bans on some imports and exports, to finance his ambition to increase revenue by 31% and to stimulate local industry.

Respect for institutions remains the vital missing ingredient in Magufuli’s leadership style

The report also complains that Tanzanian bureaucrats, driven hard by Magufuli to achieve ambitious revenue goals, are now pursuing a political rather than an economic agenda.

Meanwhile, Magufuli is increasingly centralising decisions in his office, even as that office remains largely inaccessible to entreaties by business people for clarification or softening of policies.

‘There is a clear risk that short-term gains for government could come at the cost of long-term investment,’ the report says. Though not mentioned in the report, Magufuli’s interventionist and protectionist management style can be seen in his government’s decision not to sign the European Union-East African Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) after agreement had been reached at the end of years-long negotiations.

Magufuli believes tariff-free EU imports will damage the local industry he is trying to nurture. Neighbouring Kenya is annoyed because, as a middle-income country, its exports to the EU market will attract 25% greater import duties from 30 September if the EPA is not implemented. As a low-income country, Tanzania doesn’t care as it will continue to enjoy full EU market access anyway.

Overall, perhaps the jury may still be out on Magufuli, who is after all, a few months short of completing his first dynamic year in office. But as things now stand, he seems to be shaping up in the familiar authoritarian mould of a Paul Kagame – though perhaps less brutal in his efficiency – rather than the new kind of African leader which he seemed to promise.

Bulldozing through corruption, incompetence, pomp and ceremony in the name of the ordinary citizen is no doubt good. But it is respect for institutions, instead of trying to do it on his own, which remains the vital missing ingredient that could make Magufuli a really good leader.

Peter Fabricius, ISS consultant

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