About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, March 29, 2021

The paradox Magufuli presidency

How fallen Tanzanian president was lionised by African elites for doing exactly what they always protest against

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA |  Since his death, former Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli has been an object of much praise from many commentators, including a large number Tanzanians. While I admired his motivations and intentions, I never agreed with Magufuli’s approach to reform. I was repulsed by the personalised and arbitrary way in which he conducted public affairs.

I am always puzzled by a large section of African elites. In one second they argue that power should be institutionalised and not personalised and in another; when a leader does what is emotionally satisfying to them but in a personalised fashion running roughshod over institutions, they cheer him along. They claim to oppose dictatorship and insist that power must be checked and balanced. Yet when a leader emerges who does what they demand but does it using arbitrary power, they support him. That was the love affair between Magufuli and this section of African elites.

Magulufi’s presidency was the ultimate manifestation of both the crisis and the contradictions of our elites. Upon coming to power, he exercised a degree of arbitrariness only reminiscent of Idi Amin. He would enter a government facility; be it hospital or school, and finding things gone wrong and without first establishing the circumstances under which disorder grew, he would – on impulse – fire the entire management. At a whim and in a heat of anger, he would cancel government contracts, fire government officials and reverse decisions by his predecessor.

But first a clarification: I am not against the use of a strong authoritarian hand to correct distortions created over decades. Indeed, I believe that reforming a deeply entrenched corrupt system requires a leader to exercise power without being hamstrung by unnecessary checks and balances. Attempts to uphold the highest standards of due process are more likely to abort reform. This is because entrenched interests can use the procedures of government, which they are adept at, to block reform. So, forceful action is a necessary precondition for effective reform.

However, there is a difference between forcefulness and arbitrariness, between institutionalised power and personalised highhandedness and between being authoritarian and being a village tyrant. I am not sorry to say Magufuli represented the latter. His were not reforms but emotionally charged and erratic personal interventions. All too often, he destroyed whatever was there without replacing it.

Reform cannot be based on emotions. It must be based on facts. It must be done systematically through some institutionalised process, not personalised to one’s feelings, acting in the heat of the moment. Even in medieval times, people did not govern without any recourse to established norms or procedures. It is possible that in his many reckless decisions, Magufuli may have corrected some mistakes. But even then, his emotionally charged and highly personalised arbitrariness cannot be justified by such accidental success.

I have seen reform elsewhere which has worked. One example is post 1986 Uganda; the other, post 1994 Rwanda. In 1the 990s, President Yoweri Museveni carried out far-reaching reforms. He knew what he wanted. But he used institutions such as the Army Council, the Army High Command, the National Resistance Council and cabinet to make critical decisions such as the return of Asian properties, return of ebyaffe, privatisation, civil service retrenchment, etc. His reforms were successful and have been sustainable because doing them through institutions gave them a collective mandate and therefore some degree of legitimacy.

Another example is President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. In the early to mid-2000s, he carried out comprehensive reforms of public sector that (I suspect) Magufuli sought to imitate.

These reforms included reducing the number of districts, the size of cabinet and parliament, removing official cars from most government officials, cutting down on unnecessary international travels etc. All of these decisions were first taken to the Political Parties Forum, then to cabinet and finally to parliament and adopted. They did not emerge from below but from Kagame personally and he used all these institutions to ensure buy-in i.e. to build a broad national consensus in favour of a lean and efficient government.

Even in his fight against corruption, where he can be accused of being highhanded, Kagame has always acted not on his whims but on facts based on an investigation. Once he has done the investigations and established culpability, he moves quickly and decisively to arrest and prosecute the culprits. In most cases the state in Rwanda has lost corruption cases against the accused public officials. This only shows that corruption is hard to prove but also that the president could have acted on either false or incomplete information. The bottom-line here is that he acted on the basis of an investigation (institutions), not on his personal whims.

Magufuli was a disastrous imitation of Kagame. He lacked the subtlety of a reformer and the ideological grounding of a revolutionary. He was a boxer who wore a blindfold and went boxing everything in the ring – the referee, the attendants on both sides, the poles, and the ropes. He only boxed his opponent by accident or luck. His equal was Idi Amin who would make decisions based on his dreams, the caresses of his mistresses and the jests of buffoons (as Akena Adoko put it). His decision to chase away Ugandans of Asian descent was, apparently, based on a dream. His decision to allow Palestinian hijackers use Entebbe was spontaneous based on an interview with a French film producer.

Magufuli was lionised by a section of African elites because of their deep sense of psychological insecurity. Growing up in poor countries dominated by images of the affluence of rich nations, African elites want to leapfrog to modernity overnight. But it is impossible to cheat social evolution, and transformative change takes generations. If some nations in East Asia transformed rapidly, it is because they had a long history of statehood, a shared national consciousness, accumulated social capital and norms and values that lent themselves easily to capitalist transformation.

African elites, in their impatient desire to see their nations transformed in an instant to look like Europe or South Korea, have been clutching from one straw to another. In one second they want democracy and its accompanying checks and balances while in another they want one man or woman, the magical leader, to perform a miracle. Magufuli tapped into this. He was a populist and a demagogue who abused power but attracted the adulation of the hordes. I suspect he must have wrecked untold havoc on Tanzania and history will not absolve him of his impunity.


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