Former Tanzanian leader John Magufuli passed away on March 17 after what was described as heart complications although many in the country and outside believe he contracted COVID-19 which got worse with time.
Magufuli has since been replaced by the woman who used to be his deputy – Samia Suluhu Hassan, Hassan becomes the first woman to lead Tanzania and the first substantive female president in East Africa. The 61-year-old is expected to complete the rest of Magufuli’s term that was won in October last year.
Magufuli picked up the nickname The Bulldozer prior to his presidency. He was Tanzania’s public works minister on two separate occasions and was hailed for his relentless pursuit of public infrastructure. He was also seen as incorruptible while he espoused populist views.
For many, it was only a matter of time until the former teacher and Christian apologist became president. This expectation was certainly aided by Magufuli’s membership in the Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party, Tanzania‘s most dominant party since the 1980s.
So, when all is said and done how will we remember the reign of The Bulldozer
Magufuli did not seem like a man who ever had doubts about his actions, views and policies. Conviction is encouraged in many leaders. In hindsight, decisions that make defining moments are hailed as the point at which a leader sealed their legacy.
But Magufuli’s conviction was also why he could not be helped once he decided COVID-19 was beneath his critical concern. The intransigence was amazing especially in the face of available data.
For about a year, Tanzania has not revealed in a national update, where the country’s COVID-19 situation stands. It is not only that updates were discouraged by Magufuli but he deliberately moved to harm the reputation of scientists who worked at the country’s national laboratory to understand Tanzania’s portion of the pandemic.
Instead, he encouraged prayers from various religious groups and declared that “God will save” his country. Restrictions to daily life were also not imposed to protect lives.
It was surprising, and from a Pan-African viewpoint, disheartening, as the president became the world’s most infamous COVIDIOT, the term invented to disparage skeptics of the reality and intensity of the coronavirus.
Magufuli was an authoritarian, and that came with the positive and negative moral implications of that attitude. It is rare if at all, to see one point out a positive of being an authoritarian but consider this. As a result of his indisputable desire to lead and to be followed, Magufuli always tried to serve as an example for what he preaches. At least, it was hard to call The Bulldozer a hypocrite.
But his style also meant he crushed dissent and was not very tolerant of divergent views. Popular artists, private persons, and opposition members did not escape his wrath. He shut down national conversations on LGBTQ humanity and was unforgiving on views he found too liberal.
He was a brilliant populist because Magufuli understood his country. He spoke the people’s language of traditionalism, of economic subsistence, of anti-corruption, of religiosity, and of hope. He was loved because his own achievements were aspirational to the masses – he was the son of a peasant farmer and he became president.
The individualism of working hard and through difficulties underwrote Magufulian populism. And that will not wear off easily because despite what the outside world saw, Tanzanians saw a hero.