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Africa, Leadership, Nigeria

Africa’s New Brooms Clean House

A strong new broom is sweeping Africa. In both Nigeria and Tanzania, determined new presidents are challenging the onetime dissolute and largely easygoing ways of their predecessors. As Nigeria and Tanzania go, so conceivably could go the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

In Tanzania – expected to be the fifth-largest country in the world in 50 years – President John Magufuli took office in November and immediately began imposing higher conduct standards on his surprised and resentful colleagues.

When he unexpectedly arrived at the main state hospital to find slovenly conditions and administrators absent, he sacked the head of the facility. When he held a meeting and six administrators arrived hours late, thinking that “African time” still ruled, they were jailed. After being released, they showed up for work two hours early. Ever since, civil servants everywhere in the country have been rushing to work at 6 a.m., not 7:30 a.m., just in case the President or some other leader chooses to check on their adherence to approved office opening times.

Mr. Magufuli, insistent on frugality, has banned all non-essential foreign travel, and restricted first-class and business-class air ticketing to himself, his Vice-President and the Prime Minister. He has thus ended decades of happy privileges for many lower-ranking but self-important politicians and administrators and, symbolically, showed a new sensitivity to waste.

Mr. Magufuli, previously a well-regarded and assertive minister of public works who earned the nickname “bulldozer,” cancelled Tanzania’s Independence Day celebrations in early December, telling his officials to spend the saved money on cleaning up Dar es Salaam’s littered streets. “It is so shameful that we are spending huge amounts of money to celebrate 54 years of independence when our people are dying of cholera,” he said.

The President’s actions also said more than his words. He personally joined the cleanup campaign in the streets, picking up trash along with fellow leaders, all of whom he had mobilized and energized.

Mr. Magufuli, a 56-year-old Roman Catholic and a former seminarian, was on the warpath against unnecessary expenditures throughout December. He startled everyone accustomed to sending out government Christmas cards by prohibiting their transmission, especially from his own office. He believes that printing cards at government expense is wasteful and unethical.

In a desperately poor country riddled for years by wild corruption scandals, all of these declarations and manoeuvres have been bold and well received by citizens, if not by the privileged politicians from his long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi political party. Long accustomed to abusing their public positions for private gain, they have been surprised and alarmed by the actions of the new President.

In 2014 and early 2015, key cabinet-level ministers and other officials were accused of stealing from the state-owned electricity monopoly, and for shifting huge sums of cash overseas illegally. Several prominent politicians lost their jobs, but graft still persisted as an accustomed way of life – until October and the arrival of Mr. Magufuli.

It is too early to tell whether the President’s dynamic gestures will improve Tanzania’s performance on a sustainable basis, and whether his pointed actions – many essentially symbolic – will reduce corruption appreciably. But they have given Tanzanian citizens, and East Africans more generally, great hope that governance will strengthen and that his fresh leadership will make government work for the people, rather than take from them.

Across the continent, in populous Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari’s broom has also swept strongly since he won the presidential election in March. Corrupt pursuits, once standard nationally and in the country’s 36 states, are now discouraged by Mr. Buhari, and corrupt politicians have been arrested. Petroleum revenues are neither being squandered nor spent wildly to enrich prominent individuals. Nigerians are beginning to enjoy more reliable services, even steadier electrical power and better road maintenance. The New Zion has not yet fully arrived, but it could be coming.

Tanzanians may soon also benefit appreciably from their new, committed leadership. If so, the Magufuli and Buhari brooms may presage similar behavioural replications in other African countries, appropriate emulation and aroused expectations (and hope) among Africa’s growing middle class.

 This post first appeared under the same title in the Globe and Mail, Dec. 29, 2015
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