Africa lost its truly populist head of state when John Pombe Joseph Magufuli, President of the Republic of Tanzania, who died on March 17, 2021. He was 61. The reported official cause of death was some unspecified heart troubles. However, the facts as reported point to the reality that the man died of COVID-19 complications. This fact would have embarrassed President Magufuli because he was not sure the virus existed and if it did, it was not worth the entire hullabaloo. Thus Magufuli joined Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died on June 8, 2020, as the COVID-19 skeptics who eventually succumbed to the virus.
Tanzanians did give President Magufuli a hero’s burial. His body was moved from city to city to towns to enable Tanzanians express their love for him and their sorrow over his passing until March 26, 2021 when he was buried in his home town, Chato, in northwestern Tanzania.
John Magufuli represented the kind of leader Africa always prayed to have – prudent, activist, impatient with red tape, development-centred builder, incorruptible, crusader for honesty, down-to-earth leader who is obsessed with saving money, a leader who would do more with less.
He had enrolled in 1981 at the Nkwawa College of Education for a Diploma in Education Science, majoring in Chemistry, Mathematics and Education. Nkwawa is a unit in the University of Dar-es Salaam and he there earned his first degree in Chemistry and Mathematics.
He later went for a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. He began as a teacher, and he briefly taught Chemistry and Mathematics at the Sengerema Secondary School. He quit the teaching job for the Nyasa Cooperative Union Limited as an industrial chemist where he worked for six years till 1995 when he was elected to parliament on the party ticket of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). Before his election, he was appointed the Deputy Minister of Works. He retained his seat in the 2000 election and was then promoted full minister. He was moved to the Ministry of Lands and Human Settlement and later to the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries before he was returned once again to the Ministry of Works where he earned the sobriquet “the bulldozer” for his hard-driving result-oriented activities on road construction.
When he became president in 2015, he seemed to be even more driven. He was given credit for purging payrolls of “ghost workers.” He swept away officials considered corrupt or inefficient. He clamped down on extravagant spending by public officials and he went so far as to cancel an Independence Day celebration for the first time in 54 years.
Instead, he ordered a public cleanup on that day, getting his own hands dirty by picking rubbish around the State House. He slashed his own personal emoluments and cut his salary from $15,000 to $4,000 a year, and suspended all kinds of foreign travel. He once slashed a Commonwealth delegation from 52 to 4. Most Tanzanians and many Africans thought Magufuli was the right man at the right time. Indeed, in 2017, a Kenyan professor called for the “Magufulication” of Africa in an address at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Incidentally, President Magufuli was not universally popular. Some of his compatriots mocked him for his austere policies. His Achilles heel was the exercise of power, his tendency to be autocratic and intolerant. In January 2016, barely two months into his first term (he died in the first few weeks of his second having won reelection in 2020) his government announced that the state television would no longer broadcast live parliamentary proceedings, as a cost-saving measure. The opposition saw this directive as censorship. It was among the few ways it could hold the government to account for its deeds.
It planned demonstrations against the ban. Magufuli’s government responded by banning all protests. A popular Tanzanian rapper, Mitego, produced a new song and in less than 24 hours, the rapper found himself in custody at police headquarters, accused of insulting the president and maligning the government. Although President Magufuli ordered the rapper released, he was advised to rework his song to include other problems in society, such as the problem of “tax cheats. Magufuli’s response to critical articles is to ban the newspapers that published them. One opposition leader was nearly killed, although the government denied having a hand in the assassination attempt. Amnesty International reported Tanzanian journalists fearing for their lives.Magufuli did not seem to think about people’s human rights. All this was a surprise from the son of a peasant farmer, who was expected to be protective of basic freedoms. It demonstrates that every man has his weaknesses. In all, Magufuli did well and we lament the loss of such a committed patriot. We hope his successor and other African leaders would follow his worthy example.