DAR ES SALAAM — In a not so subtle rebuke of his predecessors, Tanzania’s new president John Magufuli has displayed unusual zeal for austerity and impatience with corruption and waste since taking office a month ago.
Dr Magufuli cancelled independence day celebrations — due next week — traditionally a time for the government to spend extravagantly on a public display of nationalism.
“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 time is to be spent instead on street-cleaning to arrest the spread of a recent cholera outbreak.
He also downsized by more than 90% the budget for the opulent state dinner that marks the opening of parliament. Money saved has been spent on hospital beds and roadworks.
Since taking office early last month, Dr Magufuli has cancelled foreign travel for officials, banned the purchase of first-class air tickets — although the president, his deputy and prime minister are exempt — ordered that government meetings and workshops be held in government buildings rather than in expensive hotels, and cut a bloated delegation of 50 people set to tour Commonwealth countries to just four people.
Instead of sponsoring a World AIDS Day exhibition this week, Dr Magufuli ordered that the money be spent on antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS sufferers.
He has turned up in person — and on foot — at government ministries and demanded to know why public servants were not at their desks.
Some officials have been jailed for lateness, the head of the tax authority has been suspended and the use of public funds to pay for Christmas and New Year cards banned, according to local media.
The headline-grabbing thrift and frugality has proved popular on the streets and on social media, where Tanzanian Twitter users created the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo to share their often-humorous money-saving ideas.
“In a continent where, in general, corruption and embezzlement of public funds are a way of life for African leaders, Dr Magufuli’s rigorous and prompt austerity measures have been hailed as very impressive,” wrote a columnist in Tanzania’s The Citizen newspaper.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, editor of the Mail & Guardian Africa, wrote that Dr Magufuli has “turned out to be a totally unAfrican leader”.
Dr Magufuli’s actions appear to be more than grandstanding, with arrests for alleged corruption already made.
Even his opponents have signalled their approval, with the former chairman of the opposition Civic United Front, Ibrahim Lipumba, visiting the presidential palace to commend his actions.