Tanzania has unleashed upon us a total surprise in the form of new President John Magufuli.
When he was nominated by the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi, hardly anyone outside Tanzania had heard of him.
Not surprising, descriptions of him as “little known” or “obscure” were plentiful. The Tanzanians knew better, having nicknamed him “The Bulldozer” for his fairly impressive record as Works minister.
Otherwise, Ugandans sniggered about his name, which they cannot speak in polite company. In Kenya there were reports that he was a close friend of opposition leader Raila Odinga, and therefore his ascension was expected not to be too warmly welcomed by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Some commentators also said he spelt trouble for the East African Community, because he was allegedly part of a “cabal” in the Tanzanian government that was hostile to regional integration.
Within three weeks of his swearing-in, he was trending on Twitter — for all the right reasons. A hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo topped the charts, a lighthearted take on the Tanzanian president’s frugal ways, but also a reflection on just how bad corruption has become in Africa.
Magufuli had turned out to be a totally unAfrican leader.
Instead of measuring new curtains for State House and ordering his own expensive convoy, he was cutting back. He cancelled Independence Day celebrations, and ordered the money be used to buy hospital beds and mattresses (which was promptly done). This was after he fired a public hospital director, and dissolved its governing council after paying an impromptu visit and finding patients sleeping on the floor and diagnostic machines broken.
He banned all but essential foreign travel, and restricted first and business class travel. He cut down on tax exemptions, saying everyone should pay their share.
How come we never saw Magufuli coming? Part of it is understandable. When you have a party like CCM that is the only one that has ruled the country in over 50 years of Independence, it is rarely reformist.
Such parties are often too hobbled by vested and reactionary interests, and someone like Magufuli is unlikely to rise to the top as its president.
Then, there is so much cynicism towards politics and politicians the normal expectation is that the new man or woman will turn out to be a crook.
However, the bigger explanation could be that the narrative about what it takes to be president in East Africa, and the continent in general, protects incumbents and justifies presidents being in power for as long as the three decades Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has.
The argument is that being president is very difficult, and only a select few ever get the opportunity to be prepared to lead. Magufuli breaks down all of that.
It would seem that if one is able to write their name, can blow their nose, and chew and walk and talk at the same time, all they need is to be decent, hard working, and have some intelligence to be president.
One does not need prior fame, or to be a special breed of human.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail and Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter@cobbo3
SOURCE: THE EAST AFRICAN