DODOMA, Tanzania – At first, Tanzania’s new president appeared keen on smashing corruption and wasteful government spending, capturing the admiration of many in this East African country with austerity measures like rarely traveling abroad.
Then came President John Pombe Magufuli’s more startling decrees.
He banned all opposition rallies until 2020, when the next election is due. He approved a tough new cybercrime law under which some Tanzanians have been charged with insulting him in WhatsApp chats.
Less than a year after his election, Magufuli has split public opinion with what some describe as undemocratic attempts to reform the government.
Others see them as exhilarating.
The 56-year-old Magufuli has left the country only twice, to Rwanda and Uganda, since he became president, saying the savings should be directed toward social services, such as health care, to the poorest Tanzanians.
Government officials must obtain his permission before traveling abroad, and when they travel within Tanzania, they must go by road — in a country more than twice the size of California. The administrative capital, Dodoma, is more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) from seaside commercial hub Dar es Salaam.
The bald, bespectacled Magufuli has made unscheduled visits to hospitals, where he has been known to fire absentee physicians, and he has urged public institutions to reduce the money spent on refreshments during meetings.
Such measures were so popular that they inspired a Twitter hashtag in East Africa for situations that required strong leadership, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo. In neighboring Uganda, some expressed longing for a president who would crack the whip on hefty per diems and fire corrupt officials.
But that initial warmth is slowly giving way to apprehension among some who are worried that Magufuli, who did pushups on the campaign trail to illustrate his fitness, may be just as impulsive as other African dictators.
“He seems to believe in the philosophy of accountability without democracy,” said Kitila Mkumbo, an independent political analyst and professor of political science at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam.
“He always believes he is right,” said another analyst, Denis Mpagaze of Tanzania’s St. Augustine University.
Ordinary Tanzanians seem divided over what to make of the president, who is genuinely popular in rural areas and among the working class, who might benefit from his efforts to cut unnecessary spending and stem tax evasion.
The country was ranked 117th out of 167 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index last year.
Emanuella Pascal, a primary school teacher in Dodoma, said she was pleased with the president’s tactics, saying errant public officers are terrified of what might happen if they are caught.
“I love this man,” Pascal said, calling the lack of accountability among public officials a thing of the past.
Years ago, Magufuli earned the nickname “Bulldozer” because of his apparently corruption-free efforts to improve Tanzania’s road network as a government minister. He was never implicated in a corruption scandal despite being in charge of billions of dollars in contracts, a record that may have been key when the ruling party put him forward for president.
Jaffary Malima, a taxi driver in Dodoma, described the president as “a man of his word,” but expressed fear that Magufuli’s unilateral decisions and unorthodox tactics might destroy the country’s economy.
Some worry that Magufuli’s war on tax evaders might scare away foreign investors or lead to price speculation. The president recently warned that he would order the central bank to print new currency so that those who are hoarding cash suffer for it.
Tanzania has been a relatively stable, if impoverished, country in a region otherwise plagued by violent conflicts. Founding President Julius Nyerere, was known to be an authoritarian who nevertheless was beloved for his kinship with local people, a political style that some see in Magufuli.
But since Magufuli was elected in October 2015, the list of human rights complaints has been growing.
In August, authorities banned two private radio stations for broadcasting allegedly seditious material, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s not clear what statements the government considered troublesome.
The live transmission of parliamentary debates has been halted, and dozens of newspapers have been taken off the streets for alleged licensing violations, the CPJ group said.
Although Magufuli has managed to restore public accountability, “he has not succeeded in promoting human rights, especially people and political rights,” said Helen Kijo-Bisimba, who leads Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre.