In last week’s entry after it was reported that Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli had been admitted to a hospital, we wished him quick recovery. We did so to let him swallow humble pie and apologise to his compatriots and the region he mocked because of his bizarre stand on the coronavirus.
Our stand was that Magufuli’s belief that Tanzania was Covid-19 free was retrogressive and had largely contributed to the loss of lives in that country. He should have apologised for teasing and mocking neighbouring countries when they imposed health measures to curb the spread of the virus and for promoting quack remedies, joking about the disease and casting doubt on vaccines.
But our ways are not God’s ways. Magufuli died on March 17 in a Dar es Salaam hospital “of a heart failure”, according to Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan (MHSREP). But we will not argue over what Magufuli died of—that is, whether of heart failure as officially announced or of Covid-19. That is now immaterial. What is prudent now is to send our condolences to all Tanzanians for losing their beloved president who fought corruption and spearheaded economic and infrastructure development of his country. We also send our condolences to President Lazarus Chakwera for losing his “friend and brother. … a towering symbol of Africa’s economic and resurgence.”
If Magufuli was alive we would we would have been telling him that his skeptism of the coronavirus was because power and praises had gone to his head. We would have been impressing upon him there was no way Tanzania alone could be free of Covid-19 when the whole world is smitten with the pandemic.
We would have been holding him accountable for his country’s lack of preparedness to contain the pandemic which is inevitably killing his compatriots. And indeed we would have been reminding him about the folly of his bigotry. But now that he is dead, we can only draw lessons from his policies—whether good or bad.
The former secondary school teacher and later the hard working public works Cabinet minister sprung into the limelight on the first day in office as President of Tanzania. He showed up unannounced in the morning at the Ministry of Finance offices to see how many officials had come to work on time. In the same week, he also banned unnecessary trips by government officials, as an austerity measure. He soon canceled Independence Day celebrations and said the funds budgeted for the event would be used to improve roads and infrastructure in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital. Magufuli also fired a number of top government officials in his anti-corruption crusade.
In the early days of his presidency, “Magufuli was seen as the leader Tanzania needed,” widely admired by Tanzanians because of his tough stance against corruption. Magufuli’s supporters revered him for his focus on the country’s economic success and implementing ambitious projects that would lift more of his people out of poverty.
Scores of infrastructure programs, including trains and the revival of Air Tanzania, were launched under Magufuli’s reign. Tanzania is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In July last year, the World Bank categorised it as a middle-income country five years ahead of schedule.
“We had envisaged achieving this status by 2025 but, with strong determination, this has been possible in 2020,” Magufuli tweeted at the time. By the start of the Covid-19 outbreak Magufuli had become so powerful that he could deny the existence of a pandemic without incurring the criticism of his predecessor and other prominent people within Tanzania.
In early 2016 Magufuli stopped live broadcasts of parliamentary debates in which the opposition criticised the government, and in July that year he banned political rallies. His harsh rule was extended to the country’s LBGT community, with his government preventing aid agencies from supporting same-sex groups to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.
Many leaders with populist ideas start very well. But as their power grows, so do the dictatorship traits in them, corrupting them absolutely in the process. Sometimes they move their countries two steps forward, three steps backwards. Tanzania was surely a country on the move. But Magufuli’s denialism and the country’s subsequent lack of Covid-19 containment measures are many steps backwards for the country. They take away the glory he earned as a breath of fresh air in not only in Tanzania but in Africa.
And so Tanzania could not have continued on the tragic denialist path Magufuli was inclined to put it forever. We can only ‘see’ God’s big invisible hand in all this. All said, though, we say, fare thee well Magufuli. Despite his good start, history will remember him harshly and that is why we expect his successor—Samia Suluhu Hassan–to quickly start a new chapter and turn around her predecessor’s retrogressive policy on Covid-19. To save lives. n