“Mimi ni mtumishi wenyu. Siku moja mtanikumbuka. Mtanikumbuka kwa mazuri na si kwa mabaya. Mtanikumbuka kwa sababu nimesacrifice maisha yangu kwa ajili ya Watanzania maskini.”
“I am your servant. One day you will remember me. You will remember me for good and not for bad. You will remember me because I sacrificed my life for poor Tanzanians.”
These words by Tanzania’s late President Dr. John Pombe Magufuli underscore the life that he lived.
On March 17th, a sombre Vice-President of Tanzania, Madam Suluhu Hassan, informed the Tanzanian nation that, ‘it is with great grief that I announce to you today that today, 17th March at about 5PM in the evening, we lost our great leader, President of the United Republic of Tanzania, His Excellency Dr. John Pombe Magufuli.’
And so on 17th March, President Magufuli breathed his last. Although the official cause of death, as shared by the Vice President is a heart attack, many will speculate that he died of Covid-19 complications. Interestingly, just a few months ago, he said in a speech that, ‘let us not fear. One day we shall die. Even me, will die. As per God’s plan, I may die from any cause. I may die from Corona or any other cause.’
A lot will be said about President Magufuli’s Covid-19 denials. However, he didn’t deny the existence of Covid-19. In fact, in his inauguration speech on 5th November 2020, he acknowledged the severity of Covid and proceeded to thank God for protecting Tanzania. There is nothing wrong with that because divine providence and protection is something that many of us believe in. I just wish that he had led Tanzania towards a more robust, proactive handling of Covid-19. I think his handling of this pandemic was a low moment, a bad season of his presidency. Unfortunately, to the world, particularly the West, it may be the one thing that will define his presidency.
In announcing President Magufuli’s demines, Britain’s Guardian Newspaper, one of the most progressive newspapers in the West, screamed that, ‘John Magufuli, Covid denying President, dies aged 61.’ Unfortunate. If we don’t tell our story as Africans, from our perspective and in our own way, the world will always tell it in twisted fashion.
President Magufuli had a bad season. But a human life is much more than a low moment or a season. The entirety of your life should not be reduced to a bad season in your life. You yourself should not define yourself by your bad seasons or your mistakes. You should learn from your mistakes and emerge from them wiser, stronger.
George Washington, the first US President, was a slave owner. But his presidency is not defined by that racist reality. In fact, his racist slave ownership was not just a mere season in his life but a part of his life. Yet he is remembered as a great leader who led USA to independence from Britain. Talking of Britain, Winston Churchill is the most famous British Prime Minister and is remembered as a great leader. Yet he firmly believed in the supremacy of the British Empire, which at the time was colonizing dozens of nations around the world, dispossessing them not just of their land but importantly, their dignity. This highly disturbing season of his premiership doesn’t define the totality of his leadership.
The world, particularly in the West, will seek to define President Magufuli by his regrettable handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Tanzania. But this bad season does not define the man that he was. The reason his presidency, his very life and now, his death, resonates highly with the common man and woman, is because they sensed that he was truly fighting for them.
Before he became a Covid-19 denier caricature, President Magufuli was a no-nonsense leader who championed integrity and action. He had zero tolerance for corruption and inefficient leaders. Whenever he encountered corrupt, inefficient leaders, he would fire them on the spot. I will remember him for that. Most Tanzanians, Kenyans and East Africans for that matter, will remember him for this firm, servant leadership that he exhibited from day one. He was an immense breath of fresh air when it came to prioritizing the needs of the common people and fighting on their behalf.
There are those who would say that he should have focused more on building systems of efficiency as opposed to roadside declarations on inefficiency. To them I would say that good laws were already in place and he was just enforcing them. Besides systems must ultimately be upheld and enforced by people. They don’t just work magically on their own. USA has good systems in place but Donald Trump still managed to ignore or bypass them in his own Covid-19 denials.
5th November 2015. On this day, a 55-year old man was sworn in as fifth President of Tanzania.
5th November 2020. On this day, a 60-year old President Magufuli was sworn in for his second and final term.
17th March 2021. On this day, President Magufuli breathed his last.
None of the above dates is the most important date in the life of President Magufuli and the people of Tanzania. Rather, the most important dates were those in between the above dates. It is during these days that he fought for Tanzanians to the best of his ability. He did so by fully implementing the principle that guided his leadership, ‘Hapa kazi tu.’ Roughly translated, this means, ‘we are focusing fully on work.’
Let us follow his footsteps by being action oriented people who will focus fully on the respective endeavors of our lives.
And remember that a bad season should never define or dictate your life.