PRESIDENT MAGAFULI OF THE AFRICAN REPUBLIC OF TANZANIA – WARTS AND ALL
By Femi Olugbile
And so it happened recently that the President of Tanzania went to meet his ancestors, as we all must at some appointed time.
There was much unseemly drama and mystery surrounding his last days on earth. Rumour and speculation ran rife. The President had been flown to Nairobi and was in a hospital for treatment of CoViD19 infection. The President was not dead. He would soon be back in the office.
He was a firm and decisive man who spoke his mind and did not mince words. He led from the front. Every day was a fresh battle to be won decisively, with the adversary – whether it was corrupt officials or Chinese or European businessmen seeking unmerited favour at the expense of the good people of Tanzania – they would be sharply cut to size by his village wisdom and wilt like dead leaves in full view before his give-no-quarter, tell-it-as-it-is stance.
Tanzania is a medium-sized country in the southeast region of Africa. with a population of about 56 million. It played a major role in the liberation of Zimbabwe and South Africa from white racist rule. The archipelago of Zanzibar which had a significant Arab population merged with mainland Tangayika in April 1964. The new country was named United Republic of Tangayika and Zanzibar. Later that same year, the country’s name was changed to ‘United Republic of Tanzania’.
President Julius Nyeyere, as the first President of the nation, gave himself the assignment of constructing a new identity for the disparate peoples of the nation, where there were 130 different languages.
John Pombe Joseph Magufuli was sworn in as President on 5th November 2015 as the fifth President of the nation. In 2020 he won reelection for another term of five years. Magufuli came into office with a clear agenda to grasp the commanding heights of the floundering Tanzanian economy in his hands and put it firmly on its legs.
In much of that he appears to have succeeded, to some extent. The economy has improved. He made a drastic reduction in the size of government from 30 Ministries to 19. He slashed his own salary from US$15,000 to US$4000. He suspended the Independence Day celebration of 2015, replacing it with a national cleanup campaign to reduce wasteful spending. He barred unnecessary foreign travel by government officials.
Under Magafuli’s watch, the country banned the smoking of shisha, citing health consequences for the youths. They tightened the mining sector, banned export of unprocessed ores, in an effort to encourage domestic smelting. The President suspended the registration of foreign merchant ships which often bore the Tanzanian flag as a flag of convenience for carrying illegal goods, especially drugs and weapons. Tanzania changed the laws guiding the award of mining contracts with foreign companies, giving itself the right to review or terminate them, and removing the rights of the mining companies to resort to international arbitration.
Magafuli’s measures have resulted in Tanzania having one of the highest growth rates in Africa. The government has embarked on vast infrastructural development especially in the rail network, airways and in the sea port of Bagamoyo.
All of these have led to a perception of the President as a hero in pan-African circles.
If this was the whole story, Magafuli’s place within the very thin ranks of true heroes of African leadership would be safe.
It is not the whole story of Magafulu, sadly, and from this point the story goes south.
Magufuli was very heavy-handed with his political opponents. He repressed the press and was condemned by the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) for suppressing constitutional freedoms. He was labelled, by the Bishops, a threat to national unity. He banned HIV/AIDS outreach projects and closed US funded projects which provide HIV testing condoms and medical care for the gay community. He threatened to arrest and deport anyone campaigning for gay rights. A staunch Catholic, he strongly opposed family planning and camapaigned against it, and would do nothing to allow the infrastructure for it to be developed in his country.
To cap it all, he was a staunch COVID19 denier. In that context, his pronouncements and behaviour, as the leader of a modern nation, was a body blow that will in all probability, continue to ravage the health and sensibilities of his people for a long time to come. It was an embarrassing insult to the knowledge and intelligence of African leadership. He promoted disinformation about the pandemic, its treatment and the place of vaccination. He refused to lock down Churches, claiming ‘That’s where the true healing is…Corona cannot survive in the body of Jesus…’
He alleged his nation’s main laboratory was returning false positive results when it identified some cases and banned the reporting of case numbers from May 2020, sacking the head of the laboratory. He announced that the disease had been defeated by national prayer, and called for public celebration. Distribution of information about COVID19 that was not from government was made a crime. He described vaccines as ‘dangerous’.
Irrespective of the fact that he inspired his people with his honesty and courageously worked to give them a better deal from their natural resources, Magufuli brought the blinkered perverse chip-on-the -shoudler, religious ignorance and prejudice of a village autocrat and imposed it on a modern nation. Several Tanzanians may have died, and may still be dying as a result of Magafuli’s ‘blind spot’ and the passion with which he has imposed his anti-knowledge, anti-science COVID denial agenda on his poor nation. The shenanigans surrounding his last days suggest, despite official pronouncements about some ‘cardiac’ problem, that he himself died of COVID19.
min human affairs, it is possible to be both right and wrong – both the African hero who lifted up his country’s morale and economy, and the ignorant, bigoted, blinkered autocratic villian who allowed a pandemic to cause needless death and suffering among his people, all the while denying the evidence before his eyes.
May the soul of John Pombe Joseph Magufulu rest in peace.