Who is John Pombe Magufuli, the Chemistry professor who became Tanzanian President?

John Magufuli
John Magufuli. [Photo: Tundu Lissu]

Departed Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli is a man who was known for his abrasive style of leadership.

Magufuli breathed his last on Wednesday, March 17 at a Dar es Salaam hospital where he died from heart disease according to his family.

In his tenure as Tanzanian President, Magufuli earned the “dictator” title for ruling with an iron fist.

He is among the few African leaders who walked the talk on corruption. Magufuli was a no-nonsense leader who did not allow pilferage of pubic funds in his administration or laxity often exhibited by public officers in some African countries.

But who is this man who took over from former President Jakaya Kikwete and caused ripples in East Africa?

Magufuli was born in 1959 In Chato to peasant parents. He was a bright mind since childhood and performed well in school.

He booked a slot at the Dar es Salaam University where he pursued a degree in Chemistry and Math. He furthered his education with a Master’s degree and later a PhD in Chemistry.

Magufuli worked as an industrial chemist for many years until he decided to venture into politics in 1995  when he successfully vied for a parliamentary seat.

Between 1995 and 2000, he worked as an Assistant Minister of Works and the Minister of Works from 2000-2005 when he successfully retained his parliamentary seat.

Magufuli also worked as the Minister for Lands and Human Settlement between 2006-2008, Livestock Minister between 2008-2010 and the Minister of Works again between 2010-2015 when he threw his hat into the presidential ring.

In his public career as a Cabinet minister, he left a mark of development that earned him the name “bulldozer” when he was the Minister for Works.

During his tenure at the helm of the Ministry of Works, Magufuli ambitiously started a roads construction programme, something that gave him mileage in the 2015 presidential elections under Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) ticket.

During his first term in office, he is hailed for cracking down on incompetent public officers and contractors. He also banned all foreign trips for his Cabinet, a move that saved Tanzanian Ksh47 billion in just one year.

His rule evoked both praise and rebuke all through until March 2020 when most African countries recorded their first case of Covid-19.

An unbowed Magufuli would go ahead to declare Tanzania corona-free in just a few months as the rest of East African countries, including her neighbours Uganda and Kenya imposing a nationwide lockdown for months.

In Tanzania, it was business as usual. The country held its General Elections at the height of the pandemic against advisory by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Tanzanian elections were described as a charade by international observers. What followed was the closure of media houses, detention without trial of dissenting voices and human rights violation as he took a second term in office.

His competitor Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was shot at, hospitalized and arrested severally until he went into exile in Belgium days after the elections.

This tainted Magufuli’s image and Tanzania’s democracy which was under trial since the General Elections in 2020.

It was in February when Magufuli appealed to the public to wear a facemask, an about-turn from his earlier stand. Magufuli was last seen in public on February 27.

He has been survived by a widow, Janet Magufuli and five children.

President Uhuru has since declared seven days of mourning and also ordered the Kenyan and EAC flags to be raised at half mast in honour of the late Magufuli.

Uhuru described him as a friend and ally reminiscing when he was invited to his rural home in Tanzania and had a chat with Magufuli’s mother.

Raila Odinga, the Kenyan opposition leader also eulogized the late Magufuli.

“It is with deep sadness that I have learned of the passing of my friend, President @MagufuliJP. He and his family have been close friends for a long time. He’s been by my side at my most difficult and painful moments. My condolences to his family and the people of Tanzania,” he eulogized.