Tanzania's new President, John Magufuli, brings a fresh sense of purpose to East Africa's geopolitics
By Tim Albone, Chief of Staff, Rift Valley Corporation
When John Magufuli took office as President on November 5th, 2015 he wasted no time in getting to work and coming good on his campaign promises. Mr Magufuli, nicknamed “The Bulldozer” because of his direct style, had campaigned on an anticorruption ticket. During his canvassing he had also pledged to end power shortages and exploit Tanzania's natural resources for the good of the country. The opposition argued he wasn't fit to rule the country, in response he started performing push-ups at political rallies. Within weeks of becoming President Mr Magufuli had sacked the head of the main state hospital (after a surprise visit revealed patients sleeping on the floor), had ordered the cost of a party to inaugurate the new parliament be slashed from the proposed $100,000 to $7,000 and cancelled first class air travel for politicians (the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister were excluded from this edict). Independence Day, traditionally a lavish event to celebrate the end of colonial rule, was also cancelled.
Funds set aside for the event where channelled towards the fight against a cholera epidemic that was engulfing the country. “It is so shameful that that we are spending huge amounts of money to celebrate 54 years of independence when our people are dying of cholera,” Mr Magufuli said. In 2016 he also cancelled an event to mark Union Day on April 26. Union day marks the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania. The $1m saving going towards a road project.
Before becoming President, Mr Magufuli was the Minister of Works where he oversaw millions of dollars' worth of megaprojects. Admirers say this proves is credentials as a graft-free politician. Former Prime Minister Joseph Warioba, said: “He was for many years minister for works, supervising execution of mega projects worth trillions of shillings, but was never implicated in any corruption scandal. He could have been the richest politician in the country."
Detractors say this was where he developed his abrasive style. Mr Magufuli has certainly lost friends along the way, often as the result of speedy decisions, made without fully thinking of the consequences. He auctioned off state-owned homes to government employees and the public and once apprehended a large foreign fishing vessel for allegedly catching fish illegally. The vessel wasn't illegal and the government were ordered to pay 2.8 billion Tanzanian Shillings in compensation.
Mr Magufuli says he grew up poor and this enables him to understand what the average Tanzanian wants and needs: "Our home was grass thatched and like many boys I was assigned to herd cattle, as well as selling milk and fish to support my family," he said.
"I know what it means to be poor. I will strive to help improve people's welfare," he added. His actions have certainly won international plaudits. In March Uganda announced plans to build a $4 billion pipeline through Tanzania to transport Ugandan crude oil to the coast. In May this was followed up with news that Rwanda would develop a rail link to the Indian Ocean through Tanzania. Both projects were originally scheduled to go through Kenya but it was felt Tanzania offered a safer, cheaper and more direct route to market.
Not all is well however. Magufuli has been criticized for his handling of Zanzibar, the semiautonomous archipelago. The Tanzanian government went ahead with a re-run of Zanzibar's October 2015 election, despite widespread international criticism and claims of extensive fraud. As a result, a US government aid agency pulled $472m in funding for a Tanzanian electricity project, hampering one of Magufuli's key election goals to provide more power. In response he argued this would encourage Tanzanian's to stand on their own feet and become self-sufficient and not rely on aid handouts
Magufuli and his government have also been criticized for failing to guarantee that a newly passed Cybercrimes act will not be used to limit freedom of expression. There were serious concerns raised that this act was used during the Zanzibar elections to arrest government opponents.
Despite these concerns it is hard not to see Mr Magufuli as a breath of political fresh air, delivering on his fight against corruption and commitment to build infrastructure. Rift Valley's Tea and Renewable Energy businesses in Tanzania intend a contribution to prosperity alongside this rejuvenation of the country's fortunes.