2 years on: Tanzania’s Magufuli isn’t a bulldozer. He’s a magician.
President John Magufuli hasn’t just “pushed through” change. He’s achieved things that were considered all but impossible two years ago.
The inauguration of John Pombe Magufuli as president of Tanzania on 5 November 2015 was no surprise.
Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) is a dominant party, and the election of its candidate in October had been the most likely outcome. Media attention had centred on his main rival Edward Lowassa, who had defected from the CCM to run against Magufuli. And even in the first days after the poll, the newspapers were focused more on the annulment of the election in Zanzibar than on Tanzania’s incoming president.
It was easy to underestimate Magufuli. He did not have a following before his nomination as CCM’s standard-bearer or much of a public profile. Indeed, many believed that he only won the nomination as a compromise candidate after divisive factional conflict.
What a difference two years can make.
Since his inauguration two years ago, Magufuli has disturbed the status quo in Tanzania at its foundations. He has instilled a new creed of frugality in government. On his first full day in office, he marched unannounced to the Ministry of Finance, sending its staff into a spin. He redirected funds for Independence Day celebrations to anti-cholera efforts.
More disruptive still, he has waged war on corruption in Tanzania. He sacked the leaders of the Tanzania Port Authority. Next, he began a major shake-up of the Tanzania Revenue Authority. And then he began to root out “ghost workers” in government.
Soon, Magufuli became a symbol of thrift, decisiveness and integrity. One commentator joked that he solved a moral quandary by asking himself #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, and soon Twitter was thick with the hashtag, used in jest but also delight. To capture his direct and disruptive style, spectators resuscitated Magufuli’s old nickname, “The Bulldozer” – a reference to his reputation for building roads as Minister of Works, Transport and Communication. In endless political cartoons, the new president was sketched literally sweeping away the losers of his reforms: CCM elites, foreign companies, the media and the opposition, among others.
Since that time, people have learnt not to underestimate Magufuli’s capacity for action, but they continue to underestimate him in another way. “The Bulldozer” evokes an image of some brute, unthinking force, but in his two years in office, Magufuli has not only “pushed through” change. He has done things that were previously thought to be all but impossible.
Taking on the critics
Since early 2016, it has been apparent that Magufuli is bent on constricting political space in Tanzania. He has overseen major infringements on the freedom of expression and the opposition’s ability to communicate with voters. He has presided over suspensions and shutdowns of media outlets and the closure of online political space. He has sanctioned tight restrictions on political rallies, which is especially serious in Tanzania. My research shows that Tanzania has among the most vibrant cultures of public rallies in the world, or at least it used to.
On Magufuli’s watch, opposition politicians have found themselves ever more harassed under new wide-ranging defamation and sedition laws. Meanwhile, the Registrar of Political Parties, a state official, has intervened in a dispute within the Civic United Front. It has systematically supported one side, and seems to be doing all it can to create two parallel party structures, which may be intended to cause chaos at elections in 2019 and 2020.
This sharp authoritarian turn is not without parallels in sub-Saharan Africa, but few have been as explicit. Most leaders cloak repressive measures in ambiguity and deniability, in part to avoid international condemnation. But Magufuli’s dictatorial measures have been codified into law and can be read on the Government Gazette in black and white.
The political atmosphere in Tanzania turned sourer still this September when the prominent opposition politician Tundu Lissu was shot in a drive-by attack that left 28 bullets in his car and body. Lissu, who is now recovering, has been one of the government’s most vociferous critics and has been repeatedly harassed by the state. He was being tried in court for sedition just four days before the failed assassination attempt.
It is not publicly known who the culprits were, but the incident has become a symbol of Magufuli’s repressive agenda and political polarisation in Tanzania.
Challenging money politics
Magufuli has also challenged the role of money in politics since coming to office.
Over the last three decades, Tanzanian politics has become steadily intertwined with big business. Many believe that both of the largest political parties have been captured by private interests. Like in much of the world, many Tanzanian politicians are rich men that have used their wealth to gain power, and their power to gain wealth.
It has become received wisdom in both academic and popular circles that politicians are trapped in this entrenched system of money politics. But Magufuli has challenged these supposed restrictions with great temerity. He has been tenacious in calling the bluff of both vested interests in CCM and international actors. There is a certain boldness about his presidency.
Amongst other things, Magufuli has defied the assumption that African states cannot take on big multinational corporations and win. This year, he sought out a confrontation with the mining companies, which eventually led Barrick Gold to agree to a deal that involves substantial concessions last month.
More magician than bulldozer
The moniker “The Bulldozer” does not do justice to all of these achievements. Bulldozers are machines, confined by the mundane laws of physics. In contrast, Magufuli has redefined what is possible. In this sense, he is more magician than bulldozer.
“Bulldozer” does Magufuli a disservice in another way, because bulldozers are hulking, slow-moving and mute, while many of Magufuli’s greatest achievements have been rhetorical.
Tanzanian presidents have been trying to rehabilitate CCM’s image for years. President Jakaya Kikwete, for instance, negotiated new deals with mining companies in an attempt to outflank the opposition. Both he and his predecessor, Benjamin Mkapa, introduced numerous initiatives to curb corruption in both the party and the state. But despite these publicly advertised efforts, CCM’s reputation was steadily tarnished.
Magufuli has succeeded where they failed. He has a knack for the dramatic and symbolic. His on-the-spot firing of officials, his off-the-cuff remarks, and his willingness to audaciously disturb the status quo have convinced Tanzanians of his sincerity in ways that previous presidents could not.
Last year, The Economist characterised his style as “government by gesture”. It was meant as a criticism, but in fact, they stumbled across one of his greatest strengths. Going after drug-traffickers and shisha-smokers burnishes Magufuli’s reputation for integrity. Declaring that teenage mothers should be kept out of school plays well to the conservative gallery in Tanzania. Magufuli is constructing a public narrative in which he rediscovers CCM’s moral compass.
Equally, Magufuli has succeeded in reframing issues in his favour. For instance, he has built his show-down with the miners into a wider narrative about “economic warfare”. He has suggested that voters put aside their political differences, and occasionally their political rights, in this patriotic endeavour. Magufuli is tying the ultimate success of his popular domestic agenda to closure of political space, an old trick of authoritarian nationalists.
In this sense too, Magufuli is a magician. He is a performer, adept in show business and displays of wonder. “The Bulldozer” is a guise that the public invented for him, an image of straightforwardness that cloaks the deftness with which he deals in words as well as deeds.
We ought to learn from Frank Baum’s novels, immortalised in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s adventures in Oz are children’s stories, but also works of satire and deep wisdom. They contain an old truth that where there is a magician, or wizard, one should not only admire his accomplishments, but the look for the man behind the curtain, and see how his greatness is constructed, and what purposes it serves.