Tanzania’s newly elected president John Pombe Magufuli has been the talk of town in East Africa, and most of the continent, for the past few weeks. His no-nonsense approach to issues in that country down south has won him many admirers in the region.
Many have compared him to Mwalimu Nyerere, Thomas Sankara and, interestingly, Museveni and Kagame in their earlier (better?) days, what Bill Clinton referred to then as the “new” breed of African leaders.
And they are probably right – Magufuli is in many ways like the above mentioned leaders. I would add: he is like any other African leader, good or bad. He is striving to do the right thing for his country and its citizenry. But like he will soon find out, it takes a little more than rabble-rousing, grandstanding and frugality to run an efficient government. And then the loud drums from his hitherto praise-singers will quieten before the crowd slowly retreats to cynicism…and the cycle continues ad infinitum.
This is Africa’s problem (no pun intended).
Those well versed with the history of this region will remember thirty years ago, when a 40-something year old balding, lean guerilla leader clad in fitting military fatigue, commanding an equally youthful bunch of intellectuals, took the reigns in Kampala. He promised sweeping reforms. And, boy, they were fast coming! He wondered why a president should travel in a convoy of more than three cars; why his convoy shouldn’t stop at the traffic lights; why a president should fly in a private jet to New York when his citizenry was drowning in abject poverty…I could go on. He went on to assign himself a paltry $64 as monthly salary. His name was Yoweri Museveni.
Thirty years later, the same man looks every bit the shadow of his former self.
An anecdote is given by an Kenyan friend who teaches at the University of Witwatersrand as we await our flight from Dar es Salaam’s International airport, that in 1986 or thereabouts when young Museveni took the reigns in Uganda, the euphoria spread over to Western Kenya. Parents christened their kids “Museveni” – for most, in admiration of the young man’s ideals and resolve to address what he called then “Africa’s problem”. The more sophisticated kind used the naming to pass a subtle message to KANU’s Moi that the winds of change were home bound.
I laugh so hard at Wekesa’s anecdote and wonder if there are any 30 year olds walking around in Western Kenya with the Museveni name today. “I would love to meet those Museveni kids,” I tell him.
So the praise and goodwill Magufuli is garnering from the region and Africa as a whole shouldn’t surprise us. It has happened before. Maybe we should not even rush to christen our newly-borns “JP Magufuli” – experience shows.
No sooner had I made that suggestion at dinner with colleagues from 8 countries – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Sudan – than the Tanzanians rushed to the defensive: “Magufuli is different…”
I want to revert but as I turn to, my eyes land on a Rwandan colleague seated across the table. She’s flanked by another lady from Burundi. I want to make reference to Uganda’s third term syndrome and how it has now metastasised to these two neighbours–to buttress my earlier point that Magufuli is no saint–but I have picked up enough adversaries for the night. The joke is probably for another day.
The Rwandans are a timid lot these days. After years bashing us, Ugandans, for amending the constitution in 2005 to allow Museveni run for a third term, they now find themselves in a similar dilemma with Kagame. The Tanzanians are not letting them have a breather too – for once pro-people presidency is not a Kigali preserve, they taunt them. The argument is not lost on the Kenyans, erstwhile “digital” government poster kids in the region. Turns out there’s only so much a good social media team can do to mask the rot in the Jubilee government that recent corruption scandals have shown.
Our hosts, the Tanzanians, seem to be the only one’s standing on the moral high ground here. Of course, Uganda has carved out its name as the bad boys so we have less to be apologetic about. I steal another glance at the Rwandans…their heads are still bowed.
Noticeably quiet throughout the evening, a colleague from Burundi manages to throw in her three cents worth: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And that statement would come to wind up our conversation.
It is a few days before the curtain falls on 2015. The year has, by all measures, been a good one for us. We wrote our final papers at Makerere and should be picking our letters this coming January. Quite a feat, you would say.
Though two things continue to worry us: the rate at which our hairline is fast receding and the need to settle down. We’re so restless lately.
So there’s this new found friend in Dar. She’s one of those you tell your boys about over a few beers. Our heart stayed down south, it seems. The rest is a story for another day.