John Magufuli’s legacy will always be marked by the hashtag, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo and Covid-19. Reading the reaction of majority western media in wake of his death, the fixation, predictably, was around Covid-19 Magufuli’s strange and idiosyncratic response to the vicious pandemic which many blame for scores of deaths in the country and across the region.
That narrative, though, is bereft of any recognition of what really made Magufuli such a darling to the majority of Africans both within and beyond East Africa. It can’t be allowed to be the definitive legacy of a man who has contributed much more to both country and region.
That narrative, as we have often seen in the past few days, has been made to be in tandem with a caricature of a president who was increasingly becoming dictatorial, whose regime oversaw disappearance of critics and their arrests on trumped up charges or small slights.
All that is true, but not the full picture. The Magufuli mourned across the region is perhaps more complex and sophisticated than that. He is a Magufuli that proved inspirational and met the leadership challenges of our times, particularly those unique to Africa.
No wonder our ancestors warned us that unless the lions write their own history, the history of hunting will always glorify the hunters. They might have foreseen some of the beautifully woven but fundamentally one-sided and ultimately flawed obituaries this columnist has been reading.
To the region, particularly its youthful population, Magufuli is a modern day Thomas Sankhara. A revolutionary. A strong leader who never fell to the trappings of power like many others and used the State House to enrich himself. He is the opposite of Mobutu Sese Seko and many other thieves that have entered the State House to plunder and bankrupt their country while masquerading as leaders.
From day one in office, he committed to the idea of tackling corruption and usher development with a zeal seldom seen here and beyond. He called a spade by its name and cut out bureaucracy. He treated foreign and local miscreants with the same gloves. He never apologised for seeking the best for Tanzania. He seldom travelled outside Tanzania (including for those glorified handshake opportunities at United Nations and other international forums that our leaders never miss). He was a Caesar that made foreign companies, accustomed to exploiting poor African states; pay the fair share of their taxes.
As a result, Dar Salaam looks like a city on the rise with vibrant infrastructure of public transport and blossoming buildings. The once dead Air Tanzania counts among its fleet some of the most modern aircraft in the world. The international airport itself has been expanded and modernised to act as a future regional hub. Tanzania is on the move.
Truly Africa needs stronger institutions than benevolent strongmen (and indeed they are mostly men) but you ask around African populations today, the most pressing and urgent need is a government that can deliver on economic development while cutting on corruption and wastage. There is no gain in a democracy that serves the interests of a few. And that’s where Magufuli delivered and that’s where leaders across the continent should seek to emulate him.
Yet there is no excuse for autocracy. It’s when you cut Magufuli’s sporadic dictatorial tendencies when you’re left with the prototype of the ideal African leader. So unlike leaders who are busy enriching themselves or promoting their tribes. Or leaders who watch filth grow but bury their head in the sand. Or waste too much time political capital and everyone’s time delivering good speeches or consulting on issues they long campaigned for.
Magufuli proved exactly what Fidel Castro predicted for himself in his famous ‘history will absorb me speech.’ “A revolutionary government back by the people and with respect to the nation, after cleansing the different institutions of all venal and corrupt officials, would proceed immediately to the country’s industrialisation..”
Magufuli was an action man. He is a hero. But even heroes die and lions sleep. So Simba (Swahili for Lion) now rests. And history will absolve this lion long after the scourge of the pandemic is gone, and his tangible achievements are reviewed without the caricatures of today.