Marc Dominianni | SIPA Class of 2018
His predecessor’s household staff numbered nearly a hundred, but John Magufuli dismissed almost all of them. No need to pay a chef—his wife, Janet, cooks their meals. She continues to teach in primary school, as she has for decades, and takes no opulent trips abroad. Previous administrations would fly between Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial center and largest city, to the inland capital of Dodoma. Magufuli chooses to drive.
The month after he was elected the fifth president of Tanzania on Oct. 29, 2015, his 56th birthday, Magufuli cancelled expensive Independence Day celebrations and ordered a nationwide cleanup campaign to combat a cholera outbreak. The man has become known for his austerity.
“This is a public service, not the gravy train,” he said, discussing his decision to replace government workers’ luxury SUVs with compact sedans, according to Standard Media, a Kenyan news source. The money saved is spent directly on the public. By slashing the budget for a reception celebrating his inauguration from $350,000 to $10,000, for example, Magufuli was able to address overcrowding in an outdated urban hospital with brand new beds, according to The East African, a Kenyan newspaper.
Magufuli’s signature thriftiness is uncommon among African politicians. Social media-savvy Tanzanians use the tag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo? to post their own money-saving, MacGyver-style solutions: haircuts with an old handsaw blade, a castoff metal bedframe as a barbecue rack, a long monkey wrench in place of a selfie stick with a smartphone.
Frugality was a part of Magufuli’s childhood. He was born in 1959 to a farming family in a modest village near Lake Victoria. As a student, he excelled in math and chemistry, and would go on to teach those subjects at a secondary school. Chemistry proved to be a passion: Magufuli went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from University of Dar Es Salaam, and subsequently worked as an industrial chemist in the private sector.
In 1995, Magufuli made the permanent transition to politics as a member of parliament with Tanzania’s long-time ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), or Party of the Revolution. He later worked in various roles, but he is best known for his years running the Ministry of Works, where he earned the Swahili nickname Tingatinga (“Bulldozer”).
His results-oriented attitude has won him praise, as has his honesty. “When he says something, he follows through. He’s not a liar,” said Samuel Wangwe, an economic researcher based in Dar Es Salaam, according to the Financial Times.
A man on a holy mission
Tanzania ranks #117 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). At a recent political event on the island of Pemba, Magufuli said to the crowd, “I will tell you the truth, because those who tell the truth are those close to God.”
Magufuli, a Catholic, often refers to God in his speeches and in conversation, as is common in East African culture for Christians and Muslims alike. At a recent church event, Magufuli endorsed national unity across religions, saying, “To the leaders of religion… pray for the country. Because this country is in the hands of God, and God alone. He will deliver us to wherever we choose. With everyone in their own faith, I am certain that if we stand together and we put God first, we will go far.”
Magufuli’s vision involves strengthening the economy and giving the country a firm handle on its own destiny. On his first day in office in November 2015, Magufuli tweeted, “My fellow Tanzanians, today on my first day as your president, I pray that together we can build up our country, and put aside our differences.”
Reformist or impulsive?
Some praise Magufuli’s reformist agenda, but others criticize him for acting impulsively, not considering the full ramifications of his decisions. After his party, CCM, cancelled vote-tallying in a disputed election possibly won by opposition candidates in Zanzibar, a predominantly Muslim semi-autonomous archipelago, the United States threatened to freeze $472 million in aid destined for Tanzania, according to the Economist. Magufuli said that if his country eliminates corruption and trims the fat as he intends, it would not need foreign aid contributions.
Rhetoric of self-reliance is not new in Tanzania. Teacher Julius Nyerere, the nation’s first president after gaining independence from Britain in 1962 and unification with Zanzibar in 1964, was a noted Pan-Africanist and helped create what became the African Union.
He kept Tanzania non-aligned through the Cold War and attempted to help neighbors, such as Zambia, reduce their dependence on other African territories then under white control. Ultimately Nyerere’s socialist programs and foreign policy nearly bankrupted Tanzania. By the 1980s, his autarkic efforts were in shambles and the country was heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Long-term outlook of Magufuli’s rule
Some believe Magufuli’s “strong man” tactics could eventually lead to a similar fate. According to Bloomberg, Roddy Barclay of Africapractice, a U.K.-based strategy consulting firm, said, “There is a clear risk that short-term gains for government could come at the cost of long-term investment.”
During his first few months as president, Magufuli was hailed as a leader the continent should emulate. Now critics worry he could become an impetuous dictator whose austerity and anti-corruption measures could elicit unintended consequences.
“What Africa needs is strong institutions, not strong men or women,” says Zitto Kabwe, a former leader of Tanzania’s opposition party, Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema), or Party for Democracy and Progress, according to The Economist.
Magufuli’s administration has also been criticized for jailing detractors on social media, silencing disapproving news sources, and banning opposition protests. EnergyBoardroom, an oil and gas market analysis firm, quotes Magufuli defending his approach, saying, “The way to treat a boil is to squeeze it out, and I have made it my responsibility to do that… I know squeezing out a boil hurts, but unfortunately there are no two ways about it.”