He bulldozed a reputation as a no-nonsense president who wasn’t afraid to go hard on corruption, but crackdowns on independent media have raised fears of an authoritarian streak.
There was a time in late 2015 and early 2016 – when Tanzania’s President John Magufuli had only just been elected – that the man they call ‘The Bulldozer’ could do no wrong.
He staged surprise visits to government departments to make sure everyone was working. He put a cap on official travel, and vowed to eliminate corruption. All over Africa, long-suffering citizens looked at their own moribund governments and wondered to themselves, and then on social media: #WhatWouldMagufuliDo?
‘However, in the shadows of these laudable activities the president has demonstrated a worrying authoritarian inclination to repress dissent,’ writes Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, on his blog.
Even Magufuli’s much-lauded anti-corruption drive was not all it seemed to be.
‘Stopping corruption by sacking officials in an ad hoc manner […] may look dynamic and effective, but in reality it exacerbates the problem,’ says Cheeseman.
‘At root, corruption occurs because institutional checks and balances are not sufficient to prevent individuals from abusing their positions. Dealing with this by further undermining official processes ignores the heart of the problem and actually leaves institutions more, not less, vulnerable to manipulation.’
Where Magufuli is concerned, this should serve as a cautionary tale.
This year the president has been in the continental headlines again. He is now earning plaudits for taking on the big mining companies who, he says, have been plundering Tanzania’s wealth for decades.
His administration has slapped a massive fine on UK-based Acacia Mining, the biggest gold miner in the country, for allegedly misreporting their gold exports. At US$190bn, the fine is one of the largest in corporate history.
At the same time, Magufuli has pushed through new legislation to drastically reform Tanzania’s mining laws, including a ban on exporting unprocessed mineral ores in an attempt to force companies to refine locally.
These are groundbreaking policies designed to ensure that Tanzania benefits more from its vast mineral wealth. But before lauding Magufuli for his visionary leadership, it is worth considering what impact this is likely to have on the Tanzanian economy.
Southern Africa Resource Watch director Claude Kabemba told ISS Today there is no doubt that Tanzania’s mining industry needs a major overhaul. But he is concerned that Magufuli’s proposals are neither consistent nor comprehensive, and may ultimately fail to deliver the systematic reform necessary.
Newly inaugurated President Magufuli greets President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe in November 2015. (Photo: GCIS)
As his domestic popularity has declined over the past year – from an extraordinary 96% in June 2016 to a still-respectable 71% in June 2017 – Magufuli has been looking for ways to reconnect with his base and to win over an increasingly sceptical opposition.
‘By espousing the language of sovereignty and economic war, Magufuli is tapping into political memories of liberation struggle and revolution,’ says Tanzania analyst Dan Paget on African Arguments.
‘This is not to cast aspersions about the sincerity of Magufuli’s intentions to reform the mining sector, but to illustrate that those reforms serve several purposes at once,’ says Paget.
Meanwhile, human rights organisations accuse Tanzania’s government of using repressive legislation to muzzle the media, civil society and opposition politicians critical of the institution.
Mwanahalisi in September became the second newspaper to be banned in Tanzania in one year, VOA reported. The government said the paper had violated previous warnings about articles criticising President Magufuli.
“We report facts that are liked by many readers and we point out where the government is going wrong,” said news editor Saed Kubenea. “That’s our policy since the start of this newspaper.”
The news outlet was also banned in 2012 for publishing stories that allegedly threatened national security. After a three-year court battle, the ban was lifted. Kubenea says they are hopeful they will get a similar ruling.
Earlier this year, Mawio newspaper was banned for two years after linking two retired presidents to dubious mining contracts. Rights groups criticised the ban as an attack on freedom of expression, which has been restricted since Magufuli came to power in 2015.
In the 2015 election, President Magufuli received 58% of the vote, compared to previous elections in which 80% of Tanzanians voted for the ruling CCM party.