Tanzanian President John Magufuli is one of the most divisive leaders in Africa. People tend to either love his dynamic leadership and campaign against corruption, or think that his aggressive leadership style is a threat to democracy and economic growth.
The reality is somewhere in-between. By focusing on making the government perform for the people, Magufuli has raised expectations of a ruling party that has stagnated over the last 20 years.
But, the history of populist presidents in Africa suggests that it is precisely the things for which Magufuli has received the most praise that will ultimately undermine his legacy.
Although he only came to power in 2015, Magufuli has garnered more media coverage than his most recent predecessors managed in a lifetime. It is easy to see why. Nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his no-nonsense attitude, he came to power promising to sweep a clean broom through a government that has been in power for more than 60 years.
Tanzanians and journalists alike were amazed to find out that he meant this quite literally: joining street sweepers to clean up the roads outside his official residence. The compelling political symbolism of this act kick-started a string of initiatives that won international praise, most notably an anti-corruption drive that has seen many officials removed from office.
Magufuli has proved to be immensely popular not just because Tanzanians have suffered under the yoke of corruption for many years, but also because his actions seemed to say that he was a different kind of leader — someone who understood that the role of the president was to make sacrifices for the people rather than the other way around. Citizens from other African countries, many looking for a different kind of leader themselves, coined the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo as a challenge to their own presidents.
The problem is that this is only one side of Magufuli’s political personality. He is willing to work hard for the people, yes, but on the understanding that in return he will receive absolute loyalty.
In this sense, his leadership is a case of old wine in new skins: the president’s ideal scenario is not a thriving multiparty democracy that delivers a government accountable to citizens, but a one-party state in which the ruling party identities what the people need and delivers it.
This means Magufuli is not a “true” populist, because he tends to favour the wisdom of elites over that of the “common man”.
Instead, he is better thought of as being part populist, part patrician. In this sense, his leadership does not represent a true break with the past, but instead needs to be understood in the context of the country’s return to a more statist economic approach, which started under former president Jakaya Kikwete.
But where Kikwete’s efforts to identify appropriate government responses to the challenge of economic development was let down by limited implementation, Magufuli is determined to push much further, much faster.
This is not necessarily a bad thing for economic development. Many Tanzanians are nostalgic for the era of president Julius Nyerere, the “teacher”, with its inspirational leaders and commitment to equality. Moreover, state-led development can be effective. It was with targeted government intervention to make their economies more internationally competitive that countries such as South Korea and Taiwan reduced poverty and attained development. But it typically works best under conditions of political stability, regulatory consistency and the enforcement of the rule of law.
Given this, Magufuli’s aggressive stance towards foreign companies is likely to be damaging. Although the president has recognised the value of maintaining market competition and private enterprise, and large mining multinationals can no doubt contribute more to Tanzania’s development, threatening to unilaterally break contracts and increase taxes is likely to scare off smaller businesses that have less capacity to absorb unanticipated costs.
In Magufuli’s first year in power alone, the country suffered a significant decline in both output growth and foreign direct investment (measured as a percentage of gross domestic product).
The president’s authoritarian impulses are also a major cause for concern. Constraining the activities of opposition parties, arresting people who criticise him, forcing bloggers to pay $930 to register with the government, and allowing a nasty campaign against homosexuality demonstrates that the country’s democratic gains are not safe in Magufuli’s hands.
His supporters argue that these transgressions should be overlooked because the country needs a strong man to move it forward. But this argument is fatally flawed because it fails to recognise that democratic backsliding is likely to hurt economic performance in the long run.
It is true that Africa features two successful “developmental-authoritarian” states in Ethiopia and Rwanda, but it also features many more repressive political systems that have underperformed economically and failed to deliver to citizens. Indeed, the evidence from the latest Bertelsmann Transformation Index is that there is a strong correlation between the strength of accountability mechanisms and checks and balances on the authority of the president, on the one hand, and the extent of economic development on the other.
Given this, it is not just the president’s penchant for repression that should concern us, it is also the way he achieves his successes. Populists such as Magufuli tend to claim that they are the personification of the will of the people, and so have the right to ignore or to change the law to achieve their goals.
A classic example is Magufuli’s anti-corruption drive, in which many individuals have been sacked without due procedure, actively undermining the very institutions that have been set up to combat graft. Another is the way in which the president has marginalised his own party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, the “Party of the Revolution”), refusing to allow its internal processes to scrutinise his policies.
“Men of action” like Magufuli justify such behaviour on the basis that following the rules would delay urgent reforms, and this argument often resonates with citizens desperate for change. But by operating outside of formal structures, leaders with populist tendencies weaken valuable democratic institutions, and the consequences are rarely positive.
From populist to autocrat
Over time, the personalisation of power means that the president becomes subject to fewer and fewer constraints, which opens the door to poorly thought through public policy and authoritarianism.
A good example is the way that Magufuli responded to an opinion poll by the respected East African think-tank Twaweza that suggested his popularity had fallen. To try and gain greater control over potentially embarrassing data, the president pushed through an amendment to the already restrictive Statistics Act, which makes it illegal to publish official statistics without government authorisation.
As Twaweza put it, in effect Magufuli banned fact-checking. Not only does this increase the risk that the president will make bad political and economic decisions, it also means that future leaders — who may not have the public interest at heart — will face fewer barriers to the abuse of power.
This process has already played out in nearby Zambia, undermining economic growth and democratic consolidation, and is now well under way in Tanzania. Already, there is evidence that, although the president has clamped down hard on corruption in some areas, he has also acted to shut down criticism of the fact that the controller and auditor general found that R8.9-billion was unaccounted for in the government’s 2016-2017 budget.
The debate about the Tanzanian president is likely to run and run because it overlaps with questions of public morality and national sovereignty. On the one side, foreign investors complain of an inhospitable environment and Western donors and civil society protest against censorship and state repression of homosexuality.
On the other, Magufuli’s supporters hit back that these concerns are driven by sour grapes and cultural imperialism: investors can afford to pay more, and European governments have no right to promote “unAfrican” practices in Tanzania.
There is nothing unAfrican about homosexuality, and human rights are worth defending for their own sake. But the best way to persuade Magufuli’s advocates to think again may be to present them with a very different argument, namely that the strategies he employs are likely to undermine the very things they care about most in the end.
Bullozers can smash through powerful barriers, but they tend to leave a mess in their wake. Magufuli, and his particular brand of Tanzanian populism, is no different.
Nic Cheeseman is the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform (2015). He and Brian Klaas wrote How to Rig an Election (2018)