John Pombe Magufuli has left us. He was buried in his Chato hometown in northwestern Tanzania on Friday. In power for five years and just over two months, Magufuli’s death made him the shortest-lived Tanzanian leader.
He was perhaps the most polarising East African president of recent times, beloved with devotees as fanatically, he was passionately hated by critics and a swath of the opposition – both at home and abroad.
While his critics allege some of the emotional scenes at his state funeral were choreographed by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the often-sly ruling party, the deluge of sorrow and frenzy in cities like Mwanza, where residents threw flowers and kangas on the road ahead of the convoy carrying Magufuli’s remains, seemed to come from a deep place.
Magufuli’s supporters wax about how rural electrification rose to nearly 90 per cent in 2020 from 17 per cent in 2015. He built hospitals like they were going out fashion, and there was a dramatic increase in school enrolment. He went on an infrastructure building binge, but what set him apart from most of his peers on the continent is that they got finished — often ahead of time and on budget.
In his first months, he launched a bloody war against corruption, but then faltered, as his cabal double-dipped, and he began to lavish goodies on his hometown, including a new airport.
But what did in Magufuli’s star, was his extreme bludgeoning of the opposition, the media, civil society, and his vicious attack on the independent knowledge industry and community.
His arbitrariness, and embrace of the unscientific, especially in respect of Covid-19, was an own goal that won the match for the rival team.
And therein lies the African tragedy and mystery. African history and present is full of leaders who radically changed their countries for the better, but just didn’t have it in them to let freedom of expression and association reign.
You can count on the fingertips the leaders who have been both transformative, and oversaw a blossoming of free expression and political competition, beginning with Botswana’s founding president Seretse Khama.
In more recent times, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki came close, until his legacy was sullied by the fiasco of the December 2007 election. Kibaki saw freewheeling opposition politics and media as an opium of the people, a bone that distracted the country as he busied himself overseeing a notable economic turnaround.
The fact that Seretse Khama-like leaders are black swans in Africa, is tragic because what Magufuli had achieved, was enough to counter and withstand any points a free opposition and media would have deducted from him through criticism.
Seeing the outpouring of emotion over his death, if Magufuli hadn’t repressed — and even clobbered — the opposition, media, civil society, and throttled free use of the internet, the country would have sung his praises to high heavens, built a colossal statue of him at a place like Tanga port, and clamoured for the Pope to beatify him.
He is a man who could have had a whole beef sirloin for his political dinner, but chose to eat a grasshopper instead. Why, is a mystery that has been buried with him.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]