Tanzania President John Magufuli: The man who declared victory over coronavirus


15th March, 2021 01:47:21 printer

Tanzania President John Magufuli: The man who declared victory over coronavirus

Tanzania President John Magufuli's idiosyncratic handling of the coronavirus pandemic has put the country in the global spotlight. Now one of the region's most unconventional leaders has been elected for a second term, amid opposition complaints of fraud and intimidation.

When Covid-19 arrived in Tanzania, President Magufuli didn't believe in people staying at home. He wanted them to get into the churches and mosques to pray.

"Coronavirus, which is a devil, cannot survive in the body of Christ... It will burn instantly," Magufuli, a devout Christian, pronounced on 22 March from the altar of a church in Tanzania's capital, Dodoma.

He would later speak against social distancing and the wearing of masks, and questioned the efficacy of testing after sending various animals and fruit to be checked for the virus - he announced that a papaya, a quail and a goat had all tested positive. The president said he could not countenance closing down the economy, and excoriated neighbouring countries for doing so.

Although many might dismiss Magufuli's approach as eccentric, it is emblematic of his combative style.

When John Magufuli was declared president on his 56th birthday in October 2015, he seemed to be the sort of person Tanzania needed — an efficient, incorruptible president. His results-oriented actions were also framed as applicable to other African countries - a dose of what the continent needed to deal with its governance issues.

On the very first day of his presidency, he sent a stark message that he would not tolerate the country's chronic absenteeism in its civil service, when he visited the finance ministry offices asking for the whereabouts of those not at work.

He also purged thousands of so-called "ghost workers" - essentially non-existent employees - from the public payroll, and fired officials considered corrupt or under-performing, in public. Sometimes this was even done live on television.

And he clamped down on what he saw as extravagant spending, cancelling Independence Day celebrations for the first time in 54 years. Instead, he ordered a public clean-up, getting his own hands dirty by picking up rubbish outside State House.

In the first year of Magufuli's presidency, this approach earned him a great deal of praise, inspiring the Twitter hashtag: #WhatWouldMagufuliDo. While some posts mocked the president's austere policies - for example: "Was about to buy myself an oven then I asked myself #WhatWouldMagufuliDo" with a photo of a saucepan suspended over candles - others called for more African leaders to emulate his leadership style. In 2017, a Kenyan professor went so far as to call for the "Magufulication" of Africa during an address at the University of Dar es Salaam.

But from the outset, it was also clear there was a darker side to his leadership - that a number of his initiatives would slowly chip away at the country's democratic space.

The rap song which came true

In January 2016, barely two months into his term, his administration announced that state TV would no longer broadcast live parliamentary proceedings, as a cost-cutting measure. The opposition saw this as censorship as it was among the few ways it could hold the government to account. It planned demonstrations against the ban, but the government responded by banning all protests.

Another example of such censorship was Magufuli's response to a 2017 song by popular Tanzanian rapper Nay wa Mitego. Less than a day after its release, Mitego found himself in police custody.

"Is there still freedom of expression in this country?" the raspy-voiced artist, whose real name is Emmanuel Elibariki, had rapped.

"What if I speak and later find myself at Central [Police Station]?"

"Are there leaders who make stupid decisions? There are!"

"Are there those who miss [former president] Jakaya Kikwete? There are!"

He was accused of insulting the president and maligning the government. The fear he sang about had come true - he was now being detained at the Central Police Station in Dar es Salaam that he referenced in the lyrics.

Although President Magufuli ordered Nay wa Mitego's release just a day later, he advised that the song should be reworked to include lyrics about other problems in the society, such as tax cheats.

Magufuli's administration has continued to roll out a cocktail of bold and unusual directives, introducing new laws intended to increase revenue from multinational mining firms.

In 2017, Acacia Mining, a subsidiary of Canadian parent company Barrick Gold, was slapped with an incredible $190bn (£145bn) tax bill over royalties the government said it owed, though it denied any wrongdoing. As part of the settlement, Barrick eventually agreed to pay $300m after buying out Acacia, and a new operating company, Twiga Minerals, was formed with the government owning 16% of the joint venture. Barrick and the Tanzanian government also agreed to the sharing of unspecified future economic benefits from the mines on a 50-50 basis.

Then there was his highly contentious decree that Tanzanian schoolgirls who get pregnant cannot return to school even after they have given birth. And in 2018, Tanzania passed a law to punish anyone questioning official statistics, making the state the sole custodian of data. The World Bank said the changes were "deeply worrying".

Getting Tanzania's transport moving

But critics agree that Magufuli has contributed to Tanzania's development in recent years, investing in several large infrastructure projects such as the creation of a standard gauge railway to connect the country with its regional neighbours, the expansion of major highways, and the construction of a bus rapid transit system in the commercial hub of Dar es Salaam. He has also increased electricity production to the grid which has reduced the need for power rationing.

And he has revived the state-run national airline, Air Tanzania, which, plagued by debt and mismanagement for years, was effectively grounded with only one plane in its fleet when he took office.

The president appointed a new board and chief executive of the company, which has gone on to purchase six new planes and integrate others which were under maintenance.

The leader of the East African nation has also introduced free education for all Tanzanians in public schools up to the fourth year of secondary school.

'Data darkness' over coronavirus

But it is Magufuli's handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has brought particular international attention to his governance in recent months.