Tanzania: Cautious optimism and the (un)tarnished legacy

It is strange to feel relief at any one’s passing. Magufuli’s death was the end of one of the most disappointing eras I have witnessed in my country. There was hope at the start, and then over the five or so years of President John Magufuli’s reign, this hope was slowly and consistently snatched away. The online discourse following his death has been a sanitization of his legacy. This discourse has conflated him with figures such as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, our first president, and most-revered anti-colonial activist, and the revolutionary Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Magufuli was touted as raisi wa wanyonge (president of the down-trodden). This moniker by mainstream media was used to describe him when he was alive and a lot more after his death. Was he really for ALL downtrodden people?

Magufuli is hailed as a pan-Africanist hero who stood his ground against western imperial powers and was felled due to his denial of COVID-19. This discourse reeks of erasure. The grave ills of his time as president are glossed over to push this “Pan African” agenda. His legacy is very much of repression and a massive rollback of people’s rights. What stands out to me about Magufuli is how some people hailed him as the president of the downtrodden, yet some of his most vicious attacks have been against the most marginalized. This article will explore his treatment of three of Tanzanian society’s often discriminated groups — refugees, the LGBTQIA+ community, and children. 

Magufuli started with simply “enforcing” already existing rules. The consensus was that the previous regime had no respect for the law to the detriment of the majority of a deeply impoverished population. Thus, his government enforcing the said laws was heralded as a good thing and beneficial to all people, regardless of class and wealth background. However, like most elsewhere in the world, laws in Tanzania aren’t the best measure of equality and fairness. They often do not reflect our current wants and needs or even address legacies of oppression. To amend or discard many of them would be to move away from the oppression of our colonial past, but here we were implementing old ones and making up new directives as Magufuli went on. 

Magufuli may have stood up to the West, but he was no Mwl. Nyerere. Magufuli encouraged a culture of “put your head down and work” and “worry about your troubles.” He encouraged this, I believe, as a way to quash any community building and to be able to point fingers, and thus quash, any agitators. This is reminiscent of the colonial idea that to use the colonized populations as labor, the colonized must be divided to deter community building. These methods were used to control and subjugate colonized populations. 

Magufuli’s slogans seemed okay at first; however, they quickly devolved into isolationist policy. This was especially evident in the treatment of refugees by the Tanzanian government under Magufuli’s stewardship. 

Tanzania has a long history of hosting refugees from neighbouring countries. Mwl. Nyerere, as a pan-Africanist, saw the importance of protecting people fleeing conflict as key in the liberation struggle of the African continent.

Magufuli took over the same year that former president Pierre Nkurunziza’s 2015 re-election for a third, unconstitutional term sparked a crisis in Burundi that saw over 400,000 people seek refuge in Tanzania and other neighbouring countries. Magufuli over the years forcibly returned refugees to the same areas they have fled, jeopardizing the safety of thousands, limiting their movement within the country, and systematically reducing funds geared towards refugees’ welfare. He made it harder to be a refugee in this country. These actions are not pan-Africanist. The majority of refugees living in Tanzania have fled from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


The LGBTQIA+ community and our colonial legacy 

Magufuli oversaw and instigated systematic attacks on LGBTQIA+ people. Tanzania’s homophobic laws, like most on the continent, were created during the time of British rule. These colonial laws have since then (way before 1945) been enforced with great gusto by the state and society to make life a living hell for sexual minorities and people of diverse gender identities. New life was breathed into our brand of homophobia with the arrival of Magufuli. Magufuli made his rampant homophobia very clear, backing it up often with his religious dogma and pseudoscience style. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people were and still are viciously hounded both on and offline. This campaign of homophobia led to the closure of HIV clinics and community health centers by the Ministry of Health, specifically centers that provided services to people in same-sex relations. These centers were closed because they were “promoting homosexuality.” The harm fueled continues as many live without safety and other basic rights.

Children’s rights in peril

Magufuli did not hesitate to put on display his sexist oratory talent. Pregnant and sexually violated children were among his main targets. In June 2017 he said pregnant teens cannot go back to school. This pregnancy ban has been in the books since 1961, and it essentially prohibits students from continuing their education in state schools if they get pregnant. Tanzania has some of the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy in the world. According to a 2016 government survey, 27% of teenage girls are already pregnant or have given birth to their first child; this figure goes up to 45% in some parts of the country. 

Magufuli claimed in his speeches that pregnant children and children who have recently given birth will negatively influence their schoolmates if they are allowed to go back to school. Instead of eradicating poverty, violence and gender inequality, which contribute to the high rate of teen pregnancies, he blamed children. As a result of his policies and rhetoric, thousands of teenagers have been locked out of education. Their hopes dashed mainly due to the misogyny and sexism of a powerful cishet man. No one should ever wield such power over what happens to girls whose realities are already complicated and journeys altered by something as life-changing as pregnancy and childbirth. This was a symptom and the result of decades of paternalistic rule.

In his ultra religiosity and painting himself as a savior of the Tanzanian people, Magufuli became the source of pain for so many. It is no surprise that the stories of those negatively impacted by his rule are dismissed as Magufuli has now been baptized a martyr. One who has fallen at the hands of Western imperialism and a “true pan-Africanist.” The reality, however, is that Magufuli was our Misogynist-in-Chief. 

We cannot look away from his systematic denial of COVID-19 that has claimed countless, mostly uncounted, lives. Magufuli invested in mass misinformation and denial of government resources to fight COVID-19, sacrificing numerous Tanzanian and leaving communities desperate yet gagged about their own experiences.  

There was hope, so much hope during the weeks after the 2015 elections in Tanzania that saw Dr. Magufuli win by 58% of the vote. It all felt like a breath of fresh air; here was a president who seemed to care for the average Tanzanian truly. “Hapa Kazi Tu,” he said. Little did we know it would be the beginning of one of the most repressive regimes our country had ever seen. His passing, though devastating for some, comes with some relief.

 In 2020 the Tanzanian government pledged to ensure education for all without bias to receive a World Bank loan. Magufuli’s successor, our current president H.E. Samia Suluhu Hassan, is taking COVID-19 more seriously, and she also seems to be undoing some of his more controversial decisions. There is cautious optimism in the air. My hope is that she breaks away from the misogynistic, sexist, and paternalistic rule of the past. I have hope that there will be a shift towards prioritizing the voices of those most marginalized in our communities, where draconian laws are set ablaze, and we can finally begin to heal from the ravages of colonialism.


The writer is a Tanzanian feminist. 

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