John Pombe Joseph Magufuli: Requiem for a Fallen Hero

by Sam Kargbo

The gap in life expectancy between the average Africans and their leaders is indisputably wide. African leaders have better medical care, besides being insulated from the vicissitudes of poverty, ignorance, social and environmental hazards. African leaders who preside over their countries in the capacity of Presidents or other Executive positions have unfettered access to the resources of their countries to seek medical treatment in Europe and America to keep themselves alive at all costs. But typical to the ways of nature, they do die eventually, and some do die in office. Between December 2008, when the West African country of Guinea lost Lansana Conte at the age of 74, and now, Africa has lost 10 serving Presidents, besides Conte. Gabon lost its 72-year-old Omar Bongo, who had ruled the country for 42 consecutive years in June 2009. Money and high-end medical care in Spain could not save him from cancer. Guinea Bissau lost two leaders in a spate of three years. The coupist-turned-civilian-president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, who had had a total of 31 years as leader of Guinea Bissau, was assassinated in 2009 at the age of 69. His successor, Malam Bacai Sanha, was felled by diabetes in Paris in 2012 at the age of 64. In between Guinea Bissau’s Joao Bernardo Vieira and Malam Bacai Sanha, Nigeria lost Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was just 58 years old and had been in office for only three years, in 2011. Shortly after Yar’Adua’s death was the assassination of Libya’s 69-year-old Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled that country for 42 years. Malawi also lost its 78-year-old Bingu wa Mutharika, in 2012. In the same 2012, Ghana lost its 68-year old John Atta Mills to cancer. Another country that lost its leader in 2012 is Ethiopia, where its 57-year-old Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who had ruled that country for 21 years succumbed to an undisclosed illness. Zambia’s Michael Sata died in October 2014.

Whilst many of the listed leaders passed on unsung and unmissed, the death of Tanzania’s near 62-year-old John Pombe Joseph Magufuli, on 17 March 2021, struck the continent like thunder. Tanzanians were crushed, and Africans, who had looked up to him as a shining light in a tunnel, were devastated. The painful loss of Magufuli is not exacerbated by the controversy surrounding his death, but by the hopes it dashed.

Magufuli was not a saint or the perfect leader. His human rights record was not attractive. He was fast turning Tanzania into a one-party state. His casual and obscure handling of COVID-19 did not align with quality leadership prescriptions. But he brought something different from the African leadership stereotype in his less than 6-year rule. 

Magufuli led by example, and his frugality, economic discipline and zero tolerance for corruption set him aside as a serious-minded and believable politician. His pruning of wasteful government expenditure and disregard for quixotic official festivities and rituals as well as the ability to burn political excess fat in the form of reduction of political cabinet and aides helped him to save and put scarce resources into good use, committing them to developmental and life-improving national projects. Unlike other political leaders who make travelling abroad a pastime, often at the instigation of political aides who see such travels as avenues for fast money in the form of humongous estacodes, Magafuli ‘s trips abroad were few.

One of his most courageous and commendable strides was in his management of the natural resources of his country. He left no one in doubt about his determination to ensure that Tanzanians got the best bargains from mining and extractive contracts. Besides the domestication of the resolution of disputes arising from such contracts and securing equities for Tanzania in multinational mining companies, he injected into mining contracts such national standards as the right to renegotiate or terminate them in the event of fraud or inability to perform.

His prudence in the management of the country’s scarce resources and sound economic and financial policies enabled him to stimulate and engender what is generally considered as one of the highest economic growth rates on the continent. Without foreign money in the form of loans or aid, he embarked on one of the most ambitious infrastructural projects on the continent. His road, rail, airport and seaport infrastructural projects have caught the attention of the continent and his ways and means of funding those projects are becoming case studies for development economists.

Magufuli made the point that freeing scarce economic resources from wasteful government spending and the transparent management and judicious utilization of such resources can turn the fortunes of a country around overnight. From a poor neighbouring country, Tanzania is today standing shoulder to shoulder with Kenya and Rwanda in terms of potentials and economic integrity, and it is putting pressure on Burindi, Comoro Islands, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda to catch up.

Magufuli also had a decisive and unambiguous policy on education. If followed through by his predecessor, his policy on free and qualitative education will shortly see Tanzania heading towards literacy-rate feats of countries like Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Sao Tome and Principe, Libya and Namibia which all have over 90% literacy rates on the African continent.

Magufuli was no less serious about the health of his people. His investment and policies on health have turned around the fortunes of the sector in just a little over five years of leadership.

Within a short period, he was able to infuse in the minds and beliefs of the people of Tanzania a development value and principles that may see that country transforming into a self-reliant and development-driven country. He burst the bubble of those who thrive and regale in blaming the west and foreign forces for the woes of Africa; and called to question the sense and rationale in bloated governance personnel. Unlike the norm of leaders deliberately flooding the pond with all manner of political offices and personnel that are paid outrageous salaries and perquisites, the reduction of the size of personnel and salaries made the point that his was not a robbery adventure or a mission to corner the resources of the state for himself and his cronies. Unlike the imperialistic and self-idolatry streaks of many African leaders, Magufuli was a selfless leader who was without greed and avaricious tendencies. He did not divert his official time and energy into settling political scores or turn the office into a family business enterprise. He was focused, principled and decisive. He handled the countries diversity admirably. Though a predominantly Christian country, Magufuli was courageous enough to choose a Muslim woman as his vice president.

The successes of Magafuli have accentuated the debate about the relationship between leadership and development on the continent. Whilst many doubt the capacity and ability of African leadership and governance system to deliver development, Magufuli effectively made a case for those who lay their hopes on political leadership for the needed turnaround fortunes of the poverty-trapped people of Africa.

For a country dotted with misleadership and declining quality of leadership, Magufuli was a breath of fresh air. His good relationship with Paul Kagame of Rwanda might not have been a coincidence. It could be a conscious meeting of the minds of two progressive leaders with a determination to make a difference. Wherever he is in the world beyond, I pray to God to give John Pombe Joseph Magufuli a befitting sanctuary.


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