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Behind Magufuli’s political stunts

By Andrew M Mwenda

Why Tanzania’s new president is doing the right thing the wrong way and why he may fail

Since early November 2015, newly elected Tanzanian president, John Pombe Magufuli, has captured the imagination of many African elites on social media by his brazen actions of cutting unnecessary government spending and firing “incompetent and lazy” government employees. He visited a hospital unannounced and after being appalled by its sorry state, fired management and the board right on the spot. He went to the port of Dar es Salaam, and seeing the mess, fired the entire management there and then. He cancelled independence anniversary celebrations and directed that the money be used for health services. He cut foreign trips by government officials saying ambassadors can do the work. The story goes on and on.

The hype about Magufuli on social media shows us how easily gullible human beings (most especially a particularly loud section of elites in Africa) are. Secondly, it also shows that this section of elites is ideologically confused and therefore does not know what it is always for and against. Let me deal with each of these issues (gullibility and ideological confusion) in turn. Some information from Tanzania suggests that Magufuli actually lost the election to Edward Lowassa (which in Africa means he won with less votes than was officially declared). But whatever the validity of this claim, it seems Magufuli came to office with limited legitimacy.


It is, therefore, imperative he adopts a lot of the opposition’s arguments against CCM’s well-known corruption and incompetence. This way, Magufuli is a brilliant political tactician. He has by a few strokes removed the rug from under the feet of the opposition. But this may also mean he has legitimized the theft of the election. All of a sudden, everyone has forgotten the election irregularities. Magufuli has out dribbled Lowassa whose claims of electoral theft have been drowned in the euphoria of the “radical reforms” by the new president. But do these actions constitute reform?

It should be obvious that Magufuli cannot bite the hand (corruption in CCM) that raised him to and will ensure his survival in power. If I were President Yoweri Museveni, this is exactly what I would have done in 2016 (or would do in 2021). There is Museveni fatigue in Uganda. So I would leave power to a hand-picked successor. If he loses against the determined Kizza Besigye, I steal the votes. Then I would ask him to do a Magufuli and sit back and watch Ugandan (read African) elites praising the new president for his bold and radical reforms. I would then watch a few who criticise the new president be drowned by popular condemnations on social media for not supporting the “great reforms” by their newly found hero.

This brings me to the second point: the ideological confusion among this loud section of elites in Africa. If you follow public debate on social media, most elites argue that, “Africa has failed” because of the personalized ways in which our presidents conduct state business. I no longer think Africa has failed. And I think where power is personalized; leaders are filling the gap of an institutional vacuum. After a lot of reading and reflection, I am inclined to believe Africa’s success defy imagination, a subject I will return to with data on another day. For now, let us look at Magufuli’s “reforms.”

What Magufuli is doing may be good political stuntsmanship but it is not reform. He may be setting the tone of his administration. But I think he is going about it the wrong way. He is likely to fail to capitalize on the current public support to sustain the reform momentum. His actions are highly personalized and arbitrary. If sustained they are likely to do more harm than good. There is no indication that his “reforms” enjoy the support of his party, parliament or even the opposition. Unless we are hoping for one-man reform as a model for success, it should be obvious therefore that his “reforms” cannot last because they lack backing from the ruling party.

And if you have studied cases of successful reform, you would know that Tanzania’s president is either acting or ignorant of how to reform a bad system. Magufuli may be a smart political stuntman but he is not a reformer. Reform cannot be so impulsive, ad hoc and an act of a lone ranger. One can say that Magufuli is not conducting reform but merely setting the tone of his new government. He may then proceed with his cabinet and CCM executives to define the actual reforms. Unless top CCM executives agreed to his “tone” beforehand he is likely to stimulate resistance.

In many ways Magufuli’s actions are not any different from the many pronouncements Museveni made in 1986 – to buy furniture from Kawempe, to rule for only four years, and to abandon the presidential jet. And many coup makers in Africa have made them. None lasted a few years. Yet there are reforms in Africa that have endured. And we can look at them to explain why.

The first generations of reforms were when NRM in Uganda decided to abandon its Marxist ideas of state direction of the economy through price and foreign exchange controls, barter trade, etc. in favour of policies aimed at creating a free market economy and controlling inflation. There was a lot of internal debate inside NRM pitting leftists against rightists. Eventually, after back and forth negotiations, Museveni weighed down heavily on the side of free market reforms and Uganda has not looked back.

The second generation of reforms was in post-genocide Rwanda. They were not about policy but practice – the kinds of things Magufuli is doing. They aimed to remove unnecessary government spending on official cars, seminars and workshops, foreign trips etc. The RPF conducted internal discussions with other political parties and then took the decisions for debate in the cabinet of the coalition government. Once adopted, President Paul Kagame led the way by cutting down on his convoy and then obliging all others to follow suit. These reforms have held in Rwanda because they were not arbitrary decisions of one self-righteous individual but because they were debated and arrived at collectively.

The lesson is simple but fundamental. For reform to succeed there must be buy-in by key stakeholders. Magufuli may be well meaning but he is going about this the wrong way. It is possible he may stimulate resistance that will halt his otherwise good efforts.

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