John Pombe Joseph Magufuli
29 October 1959 – 17 March 2021

John Magufuli, the fifth president of the United Republic of Tanzania, is dead. He was 61 years old, and barely four months into his second five-year term. Samia Hassan Suluhu, his Vice President, will succeed him, thereby becoming Tanzania’s, and East Africa’s, first female President.

In the year leading to his demise, Mr Magufuli was most famous for being an inveterate Covid-19-sceptic. While all neighbouring countries endured months of lockdown and terrified their citizens with daily tallies of new infections and deaths, he dismissed the virus as a minor problem and encouraged Tanzanians to carry on with their daily lives instead of being obsessed with the disease.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, he was openly sceptical about the virus and its potential impact on Tanzania; he cast aspersions on the credibility of reputable authorities. Videos emerged in which he related how he had secretly sent samples of pawpaw and goat blood to government test centres and they had all come out positive for Covid-19.

Tanzania’s public case counter stopped at 509 in May 2020.

He stuck to this line to the end. His ban on sporting events and school closures lasted only a few weeks. He didn’t order churches to close. He didn’t ban rallies and proceeded with elections in October. He didn’t force anyone to wear masks. He advised those who wanted to put them on anyway to stick to locally-sourced products.

In the aftermath of his death, many see this as the hill he chose to die on and lambast him for it. There’s speculation that he was actually done in by the Rona. He wasn’t seen in public for weeks before the news of his death was announced. Rumours hinted that he was in a Kenyan hospital, undergoing treatment for Covid-19-related complications.

Many people close to him, including senior government officials, have died recently after presenting with familiar symptoms.

But I think focusing solely on Mr Magufuli’s coronavirus foibles leads to an unfair mischaracterisation of his legacy. After all, most of his presidency took place before the pandemic. It is not proper to lose sight of everything he achieved in that period just because he stumbled during the pandemic.

His tirelessness in fighting corruption in Tanzania is very noteworthy.

From the moment he assumed office in 2015, he was single-mindedly focused on streamlining government operations to eliminate channels of corruption. Before he had even announced his cabinet, he showed up at the national revenue authority’s offices to show his colours. Over time, he slimmed down the government and avoided travelling outside Tanzania. He cut his own salary by more than a third.

He was also not afraid to hold foreign investors to account. He once slapped a mining company with a tax bill larger than Tanzania’s GDP, after accusing it of operating illegally and understating its exports for years. He banned the export of unprocessed raw materials, forcing companies to invest more in value addition in the country.

More than once, he fired foreign contractors working on public projects, on the fly, for overshooting budgets and deadlines.

Almost directly as a result of his intransigence, the Tanzanian economy expanded tremendously under him, never dipping below 5 percent annual growth. Even in 2020, when the world economy shrunk, Tanzania kept chugging along with a 5.5 percent growth.

Various milestone projects, especially transport infrastructure, were completed under his watch, entrenching his moniker “The Bulldozer.”

Fiercely pro-life and anti-LGBT, he wasn’t exactly given to political correctness. Once, during a rally, he encouraged Tanzanian women to “set their ovaries free,” rebuking those who use contraceptives as lazy types who are unwilling to take care of children.

In a world inundated with sneaky euphemisms, his brazenness was refreshing and supremely enjoyable. Clips of his speeches were a constant feature even on Kenyan social media and instant messaging apps.

Of course, Mr Magufuli was far from perfect. The list of his failings would take pages to relate. The worst, arguably, was his intolerance for dissent, both from the official opposition as well as regular citizens. Under him, the media came under increasingly strenuous restrictions, the opposition found itself cornered, and online speech was slowly muzzled.

Several people were even arrested for speculating online about his whereabouts in the weeks preceding his death.

He won his second term in 2020 with 84 percent of the votes. According to Al Jazeera, “The election was marred by allegations of arrests of candidates and protesters, restrictions on agents of political parties to access polling stations, multiple voting, pre-ticking of ballots, and widespread blocking of social media.”

One can only hope that the administration of the incoming president of Tanzania will lighten the government’s hand on fundamental freedoms, while continuing with Magufuli’s fearless independence and candour. For it is for these qualities that most Tanzanians will remember him. They will no doubt form part of the standards against which future Tanzanian leaders are tested.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.