The Challenges Ahead for John Magufuli, Tanzania's Street-Sweeping Leader

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Supporters of candidate John Magufuli celebrate after he is declared winner of the presidential election, in Dar es Salaam, October 29. Since his election, Magufuli has been waging a war on waste. Emmanuel Herman/Reuters

Tanzania this week celebrated the 54th anniversary of its independence from British rule, an occasion that would usually be marked with lavish celebrations. Independence Day 2015, however, saw a different spectacle: the recently elected president, John Magufuli, picking up rubbish and sweeping the streets outside Tanzania's State House.

Magufuli, who turned 56 on election day in October, canceled Independence Day celebrations, saying it would be "shameful" to spend so much money on the occasion when "our people are dying of cholera," the BBC reported. A cholera outbreak started in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's economic hub, in August and has so far killed 116 people and infected more than 8,000 in the country, according to the United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator.

Magufuli's more humble Independence Day was just one in a string of symbolic and thrifty decisions he has made since coming to power. On Thursday, he announced a cabinet of 19 ministries, 11 less than the previous government. After visiting the main state hospital in Dar es Salaam in November and finding patients sleeping on the floor, the president sacked the hospital's managing director. Magufuli has also reportedly cut the budget for the state dinner to mark the opening of Parliament by more than 90 percent, with the saved funds being redirected to buy hospital beds.

The president has also suspended foreign travel by all government officials except the himself, his vice president and the prime minister, telling ministers that they "should instead go to the villages to learn, understand and solve a myriad of problems our people are facing."

His cost-cutting initiatives are so popular, they have spawned their own Twitter hashtag, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, which is trending across Tanzania and East Africa.

Magufuli's alternative Independence Day celebration is a sign that politicians in his government can't expect the easy life, says Matteo Rizzo, a lecturer in development studies and the economics of Africa at SOAS University of London. "The idea that you don't want to spend huge sums of money celebrating independence, but rather you would get down and clean the place, goes hand-in-hand with other initiatives he's taken. The message is: 'Let's take money away from politicians and give it to Tanzanian needs,'" says Rizzo.

Magafuli has signaled that fighting corruption is one of his key priorities. The president dissolved the board of directors of the Tanzania Ports Authority and fired dozens of port officials in December, after a surprise visit by his prime minister to Dar es Salaam port revealed that more than 2,400 containers had disappeared without taxes being paid on them. The head of Tanzania's Revenue Authority, along with five colleagues, has also been arrested and is facing a criminal investigation.

It seems that anyone who fails to subscribe to Magafuli's election motto—"Hapa kazi tu," which translates as "Work and nothing else"—will be viewed as expendable, says Rizzo. "The idea is that, starting from the leadership but involving the nation, people need to get down and start working," he says.

A long-term member of the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi party and a devout Catholic, Magufuli previously served as Tanzania's works minister, where he earned the nickname The Bulldozer because of his ability to expedite the construction of roads across the country.

One of the toughest parts of Magufuli's job, according to Rizzo, is making sure that Tanzania's economic progress translates into benefits for all. While the country has experienced good economic growth in recent years—its economy grew by 7.3 percent in 2013 and is projected to remain above 7 percent in the medium term—Tanzania remains an unequal country. Of the 44 million people who live there, more than a third live below the poverty line, with up to 57 percent of Tanzanians in some areas unable to meet their basic needs.

The biggest and most delicate challenge facing Magufuli is how to "engineer a structural transformation of the economy and a trajectory of economic growth that allows the benefits of this growth to be shared by the poor," says Rizzo. "This will entail stepping on the toes of powerful interest groups, both foreign and Tanzanian."

The Challenges Ahead for John Magufuli, Tanzania's Street-Sweeping Leader | World