10:48 pm
25 October 2016

Why Obama wishes He Was Magufuli Right Now

TANZANIA’S president John Pombe Magufuli continues to make waves not only in his home country but around the continent, with his tough measures to curb waste and government excesses.

He seems to be a breath away from cancelling Christmas itself – he just banned officials from printing cards for the festive season at the government’s expense.

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A fortnight ago, African Twitter took a light hearted take on Magufuli’s penny pinching ways, with the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo which saw people similarly apply austerity measures to their own daily lives.

Why his “un-African” actions would find resonance in the continent is clear enough – many people suffer “scandal-fatigue”, and it is refreshing to see a leader go against the grain.

The disciplinary, anti-laziness stance also gives hope that Africa can be different, and finally fulfil its much-hyped potential. As my Tanzanian friend put it, “We’re tired of being embarrassed of living in a country with such great potential but such terrible performance.”

There are some leaders looking enviously at Magufuli right now, and the chairman of that club must be US President Barack Obama.

Obama came into office in 2009 on a wave of incredible optimism and expectation, but found himself frustrated by Congress and the hard realties of politics, and unable to follow through on many of his plans.

Famous disdain

What makes it worse is that Obama is said to have a famous disdain for actual politicking in Washington – the canvassing, hobnobbing and lobbying for support. He prefers to make the argument clear, and expects people to see the sense in it and fall in line. He must be wishing he had the Magufuli touch.

But critics of these things are never very far away. Magufuli’s new broom may not have much effect on patching up the broken windows that let dust into the house in the first place.

Sweeping, ad-hoc reforms of this nature have been tried before in Africa, to hopeless results  – military regimes in the 1970s and 80s were famous for their blustering, revolutionary reforms aimed at kicking out corruption and decadence, sometimes by blasting away the corrupt, tied to barrels on the beach. Then the generals became the new oligarchs.

What Tanzania needs is “comprehensive changes of address long-term problems,” said Ahmed Salim, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence based in Dubai last week, who is a Tanzanian.

What is most worrying, of course, is that all this positivity seems predicated on one individual. Magufuli’s actions have changed the tone of governance, but it raises the question of whether the whole thing is ultimately sustainable. The answer is probably no, but it does give him some room to garner some quick wins that will be difficult to undo going forward.

Respond to the touch

My Tanzanian friend says that even the rush hour traffic has moved up an hour and a half, and now begins at 6am, as every civil servant with a car rushes to be in the office by 7:30am, lest Magufuli make an impromptu visit.

What is remarkable about that is how pliable African states are – the fact that they can actually respond so comprehensively to the shift in attitude projected by a one person.

In Nigeria, they called it “the fear of Buhari” – Muhammadu Buhari had come in with the reputation of being a tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, and within weeks of his coming to power, even before he had done anything substantial, the country was quietly getting in line.

Long-dead refineries have sputtered to life, and the national electricity utility, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), which was never known to supply electricity for more than 2-3 hours a day is now consistently powering the cities for 20+ hours. All that without any extra funding, technical assistance, or anything new given.

It suggests that the whole edifice of state infrastructure in Africa may appear formidable, but it is actually quite malleable to the touch – if you have the power to touch it.

It’s the difference between steel and spider’s silk.

Spider silk appears dainty, but is one of the toughest biological materials in nature. What makes it unique is the combination of high tensile strength (the ability to absorb stress) and flexibility (the ability to stretch and bend to pressure).

As strong as steel

Weight-for-weight, silk is as strong as high-grade alloy steel, but unlike steel, silk is extremely ductile; some are able to stretch to five times their length without breaking.

African states are often described as weak, with low institutional capacity deliberately kept so by elites, so that the political class can maximise its discretionary power and bend the state for personal gain.

But there could be something else there. Discretion itself could be thought of an ‘institution’, a neutral force that might be used for good or for evil.

As much as corruption in Africa is enabled by maximising discretion (in the form of weak institutions and low state capacity), corruption could also be disabled by that same discretionary power. You confuse the thieves, because they don’t know what to eat and what to leave on the table.