Is John Magufuli East Africa’s Next Paul Kagame?


Last week, Tanzania President John Magufuli threatened to crack down on opposition protests “without mercy”. It’s the latest in a series of moves to outrage his opponents. They say he’s an undemocratic leader seeking to create an authoritarian state. And, while his actions over the last few months could be questioned, his warning shot on Friday was something else altogether.

There have been murmurs about John Magufuli coming out of Africa for a while now. Even before his statements on Friday, critics were saying he shows all the signs of a soon-to-be authoritarian.

These are signs we’ve all seen before, of course. Many accuse Rwanda’s Paul Kagame of turning the country into a secret dictatorship. He’s a leader once celebrated by the international community, now increasingly questioned over human rights issues. And, while it’s too early to accuse Magufuli of the same, the similarities are already there.


I am not a dictator

“I am neither mad nor a dictator,” Magufuli exclaimed in June. It was a response to growing criticism over his approach as the country’s president. His strongest critics label him as a dictator in the making while others question his decision making.

Outside his political rivals, it’s Tanzania’s business community voicing the loudest concern. They argue his behaviour is too erratic and lacks enough economic foresight to bring much-needed development to the country.

“When he thinks a public official has misbehaved he fires him on the spot, rather than following due process,” the Economist said about Magufuli in May.

“More important is that he shows little interest in wider reforms aimed at spurring economic growth. If anything he seems to be making it tougher to invest in a country that already scores dismally on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.”


The public’s view

Erratic is certainly one way to describe his style, but it’s the same approach that has cut corruption and tightened the country’s budget. It’s a method that’s garnered more praise than criticism so far.

One group enjoying the Magufuli experience is Tanzania’s general public. They can’t seem to get enough of “The Bulldozer,” and it seems the citizens who exercised their right to vote him in couldn’t be happier with him.

This is an important point, too; he was voted in. Magufuli’s reputation goes back a long way – he’s famous in Tanzania for ruthlessly seeing projects through. You have to think this is why he was elected as the country’s president in the first place.


Comparisons with Paul Kagame

It didn’t take long for the Paul Kagame comparisons to begin. Magufuli won praise across the continent and beyond for his early cost-cutting measures. Then again, it was the same during Kagame’s early tenure.

“Reminiscent of Kagame’s economic reforms, Magufuli’s reforms have included cost-cutting measures to reduce the national budget such as suspending overseas travel for senior government officials in an effort to reduce government spending,” the Huffington Post said back in May.

The article asked the very same question we are today, except this was before Magufuili banned live coverage of parliamentary sessions. This was before the police banned opposition protests. And now we hear Magufuli fire warning shots about clamping down on future demonstrations.

It’s a shift in tone that certainly reminds of Kagame’stransitionn from Rwandan hero to a questioned leader. At this stage, Magufuli’s a distance away from accusations of mass killings or the imprisonment and murder of his opponents. But he’s also far from achieving the economic successes of Kagame’s regime, too.


What counts as success for Tanzania?

Magufuli’s warning on Friday certainly sounds like a step towards something more authoritarian. We’ve seen the same in Ethiopa, Kenya and just about every country in East Africa, though. Opposition is a difficult pass time if you make it public; dangerous even – especially when you take it to the streets. This is an unfortunate trend even in Africa’s most advanced democracies.

So, if security forces crack down on next week’s planned demonstrations, it’s hard to know what it means for Tanzania in the long run. Holding out for a peaceful, democratic and economically succesful Tanzania is asking it to become the exception in Africa, when it has far less going for it than its neighbours.

Asking if Magufuli will be the next Paul Kagame is something of a loaded question. Is this the Paul Kagame with accusations of human rights violations against his name or the one that took Rwanda from genocide to economic stability. Either way, it’s the same Paul Kagame who still enjoys support from his friends in the US, among others.

Or more to the point, if Magufuli isn’t East Africa’s next Kagame, which of the region’s leaders is he supposed to emulate?


Featired image: YouTube

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.