Of all the presidents of Tanzania, no other has divided public opinion as the late Dr John Pombe Magufuli. Simply put, when it comes to Magufuli, there is no middle ground as far as commentators are concerned: he was either one of the greatest presidents this country ever had or the worst. I contend that a nuanced analysis of his presidency might reveal the main reason behind his actions: he was a man trying to catch up with lost time.
On the matter of foreign policy, for instance, his harshest critics argue that he weakened the country’s regional and international standing. They say that he was a president of infrastructures who knew little or nothing else. In the same vein, others have pointed to his domestic political career as one of the reasons why his foreign policy was disastrous: while in government as a minister for two decades, he never handled any foreign affairs-related matters nor was he ever a member of any parliamentary committee, which would have exposed him to foreign policy issues. Statistics of declining foreign direct investments are often cited as proof of how things got worse under his watch.
However, like most aspects of his time in office, it is impossible to understand Magufuli’s handling of foreign policy without an understanding of the state of the country he inherited from his two immediate predecessors – their handling of foreign policy and how that was reflected on the domestic scene, especially with regard to three key areas: foreign travels, foreign investments, and regional security.
In 1997, Tanzania, like many other African countries, adopted the so-called “economic diplomacy.” In doing so, Tanzania departed from what was then termed “liberation diplomacy,” which had been in place since independence. In this new foreign policy era, the debatable assumption was that political liberation had been achieved on the continent; and that it was then time to focus on the economic front.
Magufuli’s ban on foreign travels
Notwithstanding the controversy as to what the term “economic diplomacy” entails, one of its salient features in many African countries is the requirement for leaders, including presidents, prime ministers, ministers, parliamentarians and other senior government officials, to frequently travel abroad to “brand” their countries to wealthier countries and powerful economic actors. These travels are justified by governments as necessary to enhance the image of African countries and change the negative perceptions about Africa’s economic environment abroad. They are also considered necessary because they help connect domestic businesspeople with their global counterparts who might have otherwise not met without the intervention of these leaders.
Part of this global engagement requires African leaders to take on some global initiatives or be part of various global foundations/groups/economic blocs to increase their countries’ “international stature.” Former President Benjamin Mkapa excelled on this front. Similarly, his immediate successor in office, Jakaya Kikwete, excelled on foreign travels to the extent that some in the region labelled him “a globe trotter.” However, and this is the issue where Magufuli’s stance was justified, the frequent foreign travels of Mkapa and Kikwete yielded little positive impact on the domestic front.
In his first speech as president, while inaugurating the eleventh parliament in Dodoma in November 2015, Magufuli offered some numbers about the price tag of these foreign trips while mentioning some of the state institutions which had the most numbers of foreign travellers. Between 2013 and 2015, a total of Tsh 356.324/- billion (approximately 168 million USD at the time) was used for foreign trips with the lion’s share going to airplane tickets and allowances for travelling officials. Consequently, he banned “unnecessary” foreign trips. For his troubles, he was labelled a “populist,” which is a misleading, useless term in providing any meaningful insight into his decision, and by extension his time in office. The general public applauded his decision, which was only problematic to the elite and those who had benefited from frequent foreign travels. Critics even pointed to his heart condition as the real reason behind the fact that he was the least foreign travelling president compared to his predecessors. However, while such personal circumstances may have impeded his ability to travel, this criticism fails to provide the general context that prompted him to cut government expenditures related to foreign trips for all public servants, including himself. From Magufuli’s perspective, public resources which could have been used for more impactful projects had been lost for far too long.
Foreign Direct Investments
The most contentious and controversial aspect of Magufuli’s governance in the era of “economic diplomacy” revolved around his attitude towards foreign direct investments (FDIs). Prior to his electoral victory, questions about the country’s sovereignty and the secrecy that surrounded the contracts the government had signed with mining companies had fuelled public anger. As part of the reforms by former President Mkapa to attract foreign investors in the country, many public parastatals were privatized and the mining sector saw one of the biggest increases in FDI. Laws and policies were made or amended to increase the country’s “competitiveness” in attracting these investments. However, in some of the regions where giant mining companies were given land for their activities, the processes were chaotic and confrontational. The relationship between these companies and the communities around their investments was either very tense or outright bad.
During Kikwete’s inaugural speech as president to parliament in December 2005, he promised that the government would not embark on any new mining investments without involving the parliament. The political environment was such that the controversies caused by FDIs launched the political careers of many leading opposition politicians like Tundu Lissu and Zitto Kabwe. There was little to no link between the economic growth shown in government reports and the economic realities of people whose regions had benefitted from these investments. Government’s own statistics showed that some of the areas with large mining activities were among the poorest in the country. In regions like Mara, the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), either lost constituencies or fought hard to retain them because of the disparity between the communities’ level of livelihoods and the huge mining investments around them.
To Magufuli, this was personal. He hailed from one of the regions with huge gold deposits. In his inaugural parliamentary speech in November 2015, he said he wanted to see “economic diplomacy” answering domestic challenges like employment, infrastructures, markets for agricultural products, etc. Even before he launched his bid for the presidency, he was seen in a 2014 video speaking candidly with friends in his constituency about what he would do if he gained power. Countless times when in power, he repeated that the country had been cheated too much for far too long.
He succeeded in renegotiating some of the controversial terms of the mining industry, giving the government more control and introducing new laws. One can debate the merits of the means through which he achieved these outcomes or the amount of money the country received which was nowhere near what he had promised, but there is no disputing that he was heard by the powerful mining companies which had played by a different set of rules for more than two decades. They had the upper hand, but he tilted the scales.
Magufuli is not one of the former rebel commanders who dominate the politics of the region. While he appreciated the role Tanzania played in the liberation struggles in many countries, he was never personally involved nor was he an activist in his youth days as a member of the CCM. In many ways, the era of liberation struggles passed him by. Consequently, this was the single area of foreign policy where his “weakness” served him well. For instance, the fact that he had no direct or indirect historical relations with armed protagonists in the Great Lakes allowed him to sidestep some of the glaring mistakes of his immediate predecessor, such as suggesting talks between Rwanda and the remnants of the genocidal regime hiding in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, he adopted an economic approach in dealing with neighbours, choosing to prioritize infrastructural projects to ease trade.
Though he lacked the finesse of some of his predecessors, he eased security tensions and suspicions which had characterized Tanzania’s involvement in some of her neighbours’ politics. He knew how to dance without stepping on any toes, at least not publicly.
The late Magufuli did things his way, which is why his critics see him as an erratic man. What is certain is that the idea of a country that is potentially rich in natural resources but economically poor never sat well with him, even more so the idea of a country on its knees going around the world with a begging bowl. At one time, while launching a week of industries and business for SADC countries, he paraphrased Mwalimu Nyerere who once said that while others are walking, we should run. Magufuli thought that Tanzania had been walking for far too long, so it was about time it ran. He did stumble while running but never stopped or slowed down. Indeed, his actions and policies were an attempt to compensate for Tanzania’s lost time.