Since John Magufuli became President of Tanzania in October, 2015, there has been a tendency – at least within Kenya – to focus on only one aspect of his presidency, namely his campaign to cleanse the government of excess, inefficiency and graft.
The common conclusion, as one man recently expounded to me in Kisumu, is that Kenya would be a better place if “only we had leaders like Magufuli”. This perspective is epitomised in the hashtag #WhatWouldMaguduliDo, which compares spiralling corruption in Kenya with Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive.
Certainly, the Tanzanian president has achieved much. As minister for Works, he earned the nickname of the ‘bulldozer’; a nickname name which has stuck.
This includes free primary school education, infrastructure development, and a cut in the basic income tax rate from 11 to 9 per cent. It also includes surprise visits to public offices, the sacking of numerous senior officials for corruption, a war on ‘ghost workers’ and the cutting of expenditures such as entertainment and travel.
These measures have had a positive impact. For example, a directive to the state-owned energy company to reduce tariffs has helped to reduce the costs of living. While, as Nic Cheeseman noted in the Nation last year, “public confidence in the capacity of the state to deliver” has grown.
As a result, Magufuli has earned many supporters, and ended 2016 with high domestic approval ratings and a nomination for Forbes Africa Person of the Year.
However, recent events remind us of the need for a more nuanced analysis and dangers of Magufuli’s dynamic populism.
First, a popular rapper, Emmanuel Elibariki or ‘Nay wa Mitego’, was arrested last Sunday for “releasing a song with words that malign the government”. In the song, Elibariki addresses “a doctor specialising in lancing boils” – a direct reference to Magufuli.
This is not the first time that Magufuli has displayed an unwillingness to harbour criticism. Last year, he banned opposition rallies and arrested several politicians for sedition. Live broadcasts of the proceedings of the National Assembly were stopped; two radio stations and a weekly newspaper were banned for ‘sedition’ and for ‘defaming’ Magufuli; and at least 10 people were charged with insulting the President on social media. While Elibariki’s arrest reminds us of Magufuli’s dismissive attitude towards critical voices, other developments remind us of the dangers of rule by directive.
More specifically, on Monday, demonstrations broke out in the Kenyan border town of Namanga in protest of Tanzania’s deportation of Kenyan nationals. Residents, who barred the road to Tanzania, clashed with police, and threatened to chase away Tanzanians, claimed that the authorities had targeted Kenyans following a presidential directive to crackdown on foreign nationals who are in Tanzania without work and residence permits.
However, while recent deportations of foreigners are clearly within the law, the directive behind them reflects a reality in which, as Cheeseman notes, populist “leaders rarely follow due process” and instead “build reputations that are explicitly based on their willingness to break down institutional barriers in order to achieve their goals”.
This is problematic as such an approach goes hand-in-hand with an authoritarian style. It is also problematic, as – in the long-run – development and governance require strong institutions that are undermined by an approach that circumvents them. The implication is that, even if Magufuli is capable of pushing through important policies and reforms now, they are liable to be reversed if not done through the admittedly slower official channels.
Gabrielle Lynch is associate professor of comparative politics, University of Warwick, the United Kingdom and columnist, Saturday Nation.