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On Lionising and Demonising Magufuli

Was the late Tanzanian leader a great nationalist or a dictator in disguise? It depends on where you stand.

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The late President John Pombe Magufuli has left a significant but highly contested legacy. Despite being dead, his iconic presence is still very present in everyday life of contemporary Tanzanians. Not surprisingly, his legacy is being contested and constructed by Members of Parliament, different factions within the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), opposition politicians, and amongst Twitter-based activists. For her part, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, Magufuli’s successor, struggles to establish her political footing as she seeks to strike a balance between pro-Magufuli groups and pressures from different groupings holding a view that the country needs to change its course.

For instance, during a prayer meeting with religious leaders in the capital Dodoma on April 18, 2021, President Samia expressed her disappointment on how debates in the parliament have been focusing on trivialities of comparing her with her predecessor, saying: “It is rather bizarre that the drumbeat is on social media, but the dance is done in the parliament, and you dance it very well by swaggering [by] comparing personalities instead of national agendas. Are you comparing Magufuli with Samia? These two are one!” But are the two one? To this, I will return later.

Before the official announcement of his death on March 17, 2021, speculations into his whereabouts, including the claims that he was in a coma due to COVID19, were widespread in the media, mainly foreign-based media outlets. I remember my wife asking me, “Why are these fellows [foreign media outlets] so concerned about the whereabouts of our president?’’ Magufuli attracted so much attention both inside and outside Tanzania for his no-nonsense approach that won him praise, criticism, love, and hatred. To some, Magufuli was a dictator who, in the last days of his life, was spotted as a chief COVID-19 denier. Behind the whereabouts was the curiosity to find out whether this denier had, in the end, succumbed to the virus he scoffed! Yet others were angered by rumours surrounding the ill-health of the missing president: they hoped and prayed for a swift recovery. Others even wished that he would die soon. Finally, following his sudden death, all these groups had to decide whether to mourn for him or welcome his death, contrary to the African culture of saying that a dead man is faultless.

A nationalist or a dictator? 

So what will be remembered about Magufuli? And by who? Was he a great nationalist or a dictator in disguise? Covid-denier or empire-skeptic? After his death, Tanzanians are more divided than ever, and as in the rest of the world, there are only two opinions about Magufuli: one must be for or against him.

Responding to a question from Shaka Ssali on VOA Straight Talk Africa show on March 21, 2021, for instance, Tundu Lissu, Magufuli’s fierce critic, said: “This is a president who tried to take Tanzania 40 years back by ruthless means. A president who used the enormous powers of the presidency under our constitution to destroy the institutions of democracy and accountability that have been painstakingly built over nearly 30 years from the time we went multiparty. President Magufuli’s legacy would be of a president who defied science, who defied the world on a matter of grave danger to the world – the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of his defiance of science and scientific opinion and a global effort, COVID-19 finally caught up with him.”

That is Magufuli’s legacy in the eyes of his opponents. There was nothing good about him, nothing to celebrate. This is the image portrayed and propagated in the Western media. What Tanzanians think of him is what really matters most. History will tell whether Magufuli did put his people and country first or simply a populist who ruined institutions of governance and accountability. My own assessment is that beyond the political disagreements and recent calls for the so-called ‘national healing and reconciliation,’ in the minds of the majority, ordinary Tanzanians are fond memories of Magufuli. There is no doubt that he succeeded at capturing the hearts and imaginations of a broad swath of the Tanzanian population frustrated by decades of neoliberal economic policies and weakened institutionalised modes of representation. Their devotion to their fallen leader was evident in the outpouring of grief and the massive turnout of thousands who thronged the Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA), singing “Magufuli shujaa” (Magufuli – the hero). Crowds received his body in the capital Dodoma, Zanzibar, Mwanza, and his ancestral home in Chato, a town in the Geita Region of northwestern Tanzania, where it was laid to final rest.

“We lost our defender,” said Suleiman Mbonde, a tradesman in Tanzania’s commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. In Engikaret, a rural village in Arusha in the northern part of Tanzania, are 66 pastoralist families that have been fighting for compensation for their land. Corrupt officials at the district level have diverted the compensation money from the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) to villagers of Engikaret to the development budget to make it appear that the District Council has raised much revenues. A delegation of three villagers went to Dodoma in early April this year to meet the responsible minister. Still, many were already sceptical with my father telling me, ‘’We are going to a hopeless meeting. We hear the MP is coming, and Ngoongoi [harmlet’s chairperson] and two others went to Dodoma [to meet the Minister], but I don’t know if we will succeed. The bull [Magufuli] is gone. Who will now listen to us?’’

Under the Magufuli administration, street vendors won the right to do hawking in the city centre. Small-scale miners saw at least some of their problems resolved. Peasants and often marginalised pastoralists felt that they had someone who cared for their interests. Magufuli revoked the decision to evict 366 villages deemed to be falling within protected areas boundaries. He further proposed to responsible authorities that protected areas no longer needed to be reserves to be redistributed to the pastoralists. President Magufuli also revoked  title deeds of the speculative economic elites (absentee landlords) and granted access to subsistence farmers. These should count as human rights too! Well, at least for the middle classes and advocates of the ‘Coca-cola democracy,’ those accomplishments seem not to be enough to make him a good leader.

In essence, the battle over Magufuli’s legacy and the extreme polarisation of opinions this battle has produced is nothing less than a reflection of the class polarisation in Tanzania. Frankly speaking, he infringed the rights of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie and an emerging urban middle class that promotes neoliberal values and celebrates global integration. While his bold assertion of autonomy and independence inspired hope to the vulnerable groups (wanyonge), it earned him the hatred of all the forces that benefited from the unjust system: rent-seeking political elites, landlords, imperialists, and of course, the so-called ‘free press’ that is merely the slavish mouthpiece of the possessing classes.

Magufuli’s prominence is not just in what he accomplished for the Tanzanian people but also in what he symbolised and what he was up against. Now his image is either lionised or demonised to appease one group over the other. By doing this, his name becomes less of a threat than it should be to the powers that be. The pro-poor orientation and nationalist policies were responsible for the strong support of the poor for the late Magufuli.  He was the only voice in recent times that stood against the empire, daring to confront the predatory multinational mining companiesn, revoked GMO trials and challenged the authority of international organisations in determining his government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are Samia and Magufuli one thing?

According to constitutional norms, on March 19, 2021, Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn into office without any succession squabbles as power transitioned smoothly. She has also assumed the chairwomanship of the ruling party, CCM. She made a few appointments in key party positions, including Mr Daniel Chongolo, who became CCM’s Secretary-General, replacing Magufuli’s loyalist Dr Bashiru Ally. With Magufuli, Bashiru tried to create a new CCM (CCM Mpya) by attempting to restore the values of the Arusha Declaration (Nyerereism). Should we now expect a new CCM? No, we should expect the return of the old! The drama is just unfolding before our very own eyes. The “old-guard’’ and sectarian interests that captured the state under Kikwete’s administration are back on stage.

Tanzania is likely to become that beautiful girl on the dance floor that every boy wants to dance with on the international stage. During her recent visit to Kenya, President Samia disclosed that she had received several invitations from other countries. “I’m going to open up the country,” she declared. Before Magufuli’s rise, Tanzania had offered relatively low tax rates and little regulatory oversight for foreign investors. With his politics of “Tanzania First,” Magufuli wanted a thriving Tanzania, relying on local human and natural resources instead of foreign aid. This approach is now being discredited and attributed to violence, mismanagement, and intransigence. Samia’s policy position is now clear: a globalist approach reliant on foreign capital.

Back to my earlier question on whether or not President Samia and Magufuli are one thing, I respond that the two differ both in their personalities and in their policy orientations as described above. President Samia is known for her calmness which can turn out to be her strength or weakness. Magufuli was forthright and hands-on. He confronted issues with his firm decisiveness. This too was his strength and weakness. Magufuli might have made mistakes for his impromptu decisions but he also got things done for the marginalized and excluded sections of our society.

As the new regime takes an acrobatic U-turn the disposed classes will surely miss Magufuli’s voice. As my colleague, Sabato Nyamsenda, says, “Magufuli [was] a strong roaring voice, frightening and shaking the enemies of Africa. The African lion did not stop warning the imperialists, saying ‘We are a free country. We will not take your orders.’ Where will we hear this voice again?”

Leiyo Singo is a faculty member at the Political Science Department, University of Dar es Salaam. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth, Germany. You can reach him through his e-mail address which is These are the writer’s opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at for inquiries. 

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