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By Tina Mfanga

Chairperson of Manzese Working Women Cooperative, Tanzania and Former General Secretary of Tanzania Socialist Forum


March 17th, 2021, will always be remembered by Tanzanians for the loss of their beloved late President, John Joseph Pombe Magufuli. However, the term "beloved" primarily applies to the majority of the poor, rather than the middle-class elites and their Western allies. It has been more than a year since his passing, and his legacy remains a subject of contention between these two camps. Some see him as a heartless dictator, while others view him as a hero who championed the freedom of the impoverished majority. Unfortunately, the narratives of the poor went largely unheard, overshadowed by the media dominance of the middle-class elites. This article aims to shed light on the experiences of the poor during Magufuli's rule, often ignored in mainstream discussions.


The Two Camps with Different Narratives

After achieving independence, Tanzania, like many other African countries, grappled with the problem of an impoverished majority and a wealthy bureaucratic class. Dissatisfaction among the people led to the 1967 Arusha Declaration, a pro-people policy aimed at narrowing the wealth gap. While it had some flaws during implementation, the Arusha Declaration succeeded in providing free social services and distributing land to support local production. The focus on self-reliance led to the development of domestic industries that produced goods and created jobs for the people.

However, in the 1980s, the era of Structural Adjustment Programs ushered in a new form of colonialism. Previously free services became commodities accessible only to those with financial means. The former colonisers were now hailed as "investors," but they continued to exploit the land and undercompensate the workforce. Flourishing industries turned into dumping grounds for cheap imported products under the guise of trade liberalization. These programs left the poor landless and unemployed while the neoliberal policies went uncontested by Nyerere's successors. The suffering masses resisted but were unable to effect change. The abandonment of the Arusha Declaration sharpened the divide between the privileged upper class and the lower class, which harboured hopes for substantive equality. The poor majority had little freedom – their land was taken, and they were exploited in plantations and mining areas. Peasants and artisanal miners had no control over the compensation for their labour, whether in terms of wages or the prices of their produce.

For the urban poor, freedom meant evading security forces during evictions from city centres and residing in poorly constructed infrastructures that often exposed them to danger. This illustrates the harsh reality of the lower class. In contrast, the privileged class enjoyed all forms of freedom, even the power to impose their perspective on others, which is precisely what happened with Magufuli's legacy. While terms like "shrinking the civic space" were employed to describe the situation, they lacked authenticity regarding whose space was truly shrinking. Everything was presented as if everyone's freedom was equally constrained, disregarding the experiences of the poor. Poor people's voices were either ignored or "corrected" by middle-class elites who believed they held a monopoly on understanding the situation.


The Alternative Narratives

Over the past seven months, I have delved into the experiences of three different groups of poor individuals during Magufuli's presidency: street vendors, artisanal miners, and peasants. This journey aimed to collect alternative lived experiences on Magufuli's legacy. It has been a stark reminder that we often refer to marginalized groups as "voiceless" while we are, in fact, the ones with deaf ears unable to hear their cries. The dominant narrative disparaged Magufuli in the name of the "voiceless," yet none of the narrators truly comprehended what Magufuli meant to these people.

Undoubtedly, the most prominent mainstream narrative depicts Magufuli as a dictator, but street vendors offer a different perspective. Conversations with this group were moving as they recounted the sudden changes following his death. To them, the late Magufuli was like a father who arrived just in time to support their long-standing struggles. "I believe that it is God who heard our cries and decided to send us a visionary leader. Magufuli's presence comforted the vendors and all the poor," says Mrs Masaganya, a vendor at Machinga complex. It's important to note that these people do not view him as a messiah but acknowledge that he bolstered their ongoing struggles that previous leaders had ignored.

For those who doubt that Magufuli brought freedom to the people, they should listen to the street vendors' experiences. Mr Paul, a long-time vendor at Nyawmezi Street in Kariakoo, claims that the only time he truly understood the concept of freedom was during Magufuli's era. He compares Magufuli's regime with his two predecessors, and all he remembers about the other two administrations is the misery he endured. The pre-Magufuli era was marked by brutal evictions, inhumane treatment, property confiscation, and unjustified arrests. Vendors not only lived in poverty but were also convicted without a fair trial, with the options being steep fines or imprisonment.

Paul and all the vendors I met attest that it was the late Magufuli who ended these injustices. He vehemently rejected the idea of excluding the majority from the city, emphasizing that it would never happen under his leadership. He is celebrated for allowing vendors to secure specific streets for their businesses in Kariakoo, thereby liberating them from the rich businessmen who had previously contributed to their evictions. He countered claims that vendors obstructed the rich businessmen's activities, arguing that vendors were their main customers because they didn't import their merchandise from China.

"I have never known freedom all my life as a vendor except during Magufuli's time," says Mwanahamisi, a vendor in Kariakoo. Most vendors acknowledge that their businesses enjoyed stability during Magufuli's time, allowing them to work peacefully. While the middle-class elites lamented declining cash flows, vendors saw their capital grow. Miss Jackline from Machinga Complex recalls that she began as a mobile food retailer, but during Magufuli's tenure, she expanded her capital and transitioned to the spice business at the market. Various vendors shared similar stories, some starting as mobile fruit dealers with a capital of thirty thousand shillings, which grew to four hundred thousand, enabling them to diversify their businesses. Sadly, everything changed quickly after Magufuli's passing, and vendors found themselves back in the pre-Magufuli era.

Artisanal miners have their own unique perspective on Magufuli's legacy. While imperialists and their advocates saw his actions as an "economic destruction" in the overhaul of the mining sector, artisanal miners viewed it as salvation from long-term exploitation. Miners in Bukombe and Mbogwe districts connect the main changes in the mining sector to their interests.

Magufuli supported their occupation of mining areas abandoned by investors. Miners at Nyakafuru recounted how they occupied the area after investors ceased their unlicensed operations, shortly after Magufuli declared war on them. "We occupied this area in 2017 and continued working until a few wealthy individuals tried to monopolize the mining pits. However, the President himself intervened, and we all continued working peacefully. Previously, the investors had their guards surrounding the entire area, and no one could even pick up a stone here," says Mr. Ibrahim, an artisanal miner at Nyakafuru. Beyond occupation, there was also the reinstatement of previously evicted miners in places like Mavota and others. Magufuli directed that artisanal miners should be provided with mining licenses, rather than being evicted whenever they discovered new areas with minerals.

The miners' understanding of Magufuli's ban on the transportation of metallic mineral concentrate is equally enlightening. While the investors' spokespersons mocked this move, these artisanal miners explained why it was essential. "Magufuli was right to ban the transportation of the concentrate. When it stays here, even the unborn baby will benefit because poor women like us will continue smelting and earn a living. But when it leaves the country, only the investors will benefit while we continue to live in poverty," says Miss. Sophia Zacharia, an artisanal miner at Nyakafuru. One of the issues that led to a standoff between the major mining corporations and Magufuli's regime was his ban on the transportation of such mineral concentrates in August 2016. These concentrates were being transported to Europe and other locations with their quantity and value under-declared. The ban was followed by the seizure of more than 250 containers of concentrate, the establishment of investigating committees that confirmed the companies' tax evasion, and Magufuli's insistence that all smelting had to be done in the country. Despite the middle-class elites siding with the investors to criticize this decision, artisanal miners see it as a patriotic move, necessary for their well-being and the country at large.

Emanuel also commends Magufuli's efforts to construct refineries and markets near mining areas. According to him, nearby markets saved them from exploitative brokers, and refineries not only added value but also helped with the transition away from dangerous processing methods. Under his regime, the State Mining Corporation (STAMICO) was tasked with constructing three smelting centres in Katente, Bukome, Lwamgasa in Geita, and Itumbi in Chunya districts. These plants were located in districts with many artisanal miners, aiming to provide easy access to smelting services and technological training.

"Magufuli was decisive and quick to act when it came to solving problems faced by poor people," says Mrs Hadija Juma, an artisanal miner at Katente. She notes that his intentions to improve their conditions were evident when they were exempted from the 18% VAT and a 5% withholding tax. This came about as a result of Magufuli's meetings with artisanal miners and other stakeholders, during which he ordered the responsible ministries to address their challenges.

One of the main changes in this sector was the enactment of the 2017 mining laws, including the Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act, the Natural Wealth and Resources (Permanent Sovereignty) Act, and the Natural Wealth and Resources Contracts (Review and Renegotiation of Conscionable Terms) Act, 2017. These laws were primarily aimed at safeguarding the country's natural resources for the benefit of its citizens. Although these changes did not sit well with investors and their supporters, artisanal and small-scale miners found solace in every alteration that accompanied it. Their desire was to continue working in their areas without interference from foreign investors, whom they saw as threats to the development of artisanal mining.

Peasants in Kilosa share similar sentiments regarding investors and how Magufuli gave them hope in their land struggles. They remember him for revoking the title deeds of investors and banning the eviction of numerous peasants and pastoralists from various locations. Mr Mluba, a resident of Mambegwa village, emphasizes Magufuli's ability to quickly grasp the problems of the poor people and address them. He is among the peasants who had land redistributed to them after the investors' title deeds were revoked. Although the redistribution of all the farms with revoked titles was not completed, these peasants had high hopes that it would have happened had Magufuli been alive. "If only Magufuli were alive today, the farms would have been redistributed to us because that's what he wanted," says Mrs Selemani, a peasant in Mvumi village.

In addition to revoking investors' titles, his regime also halted the removal of 366 villages previously designated as reserve areas. During a meeting with the responsible ministers, he instructed them to initiate the legal process to recognize these villages rather than evicting the residents. He also directed the tourism minister to identify parts of the game reserve areas no longer in use and distribute them to peasants and pastoralists struggling for land. "I am not happy to see pastoralists being evicted everywhere. If there is an area that was once a game reserve and is no longer used, we should change the law and have that land distributed to the pastoralists and peasants as well," said Magufuli in 2019. There were many other places, such as Amboni, Mabwepande, Kibiti, and others, where evictions were halted. Land grabbing is undoubtedly a systemic problem that cannot be resolved in a short period. However, Magufuli's unwavering commitment to the interests of the poor majority showed that concerns over their land rights were being taken seriously. Thanks to him and the then-Secretary General of the ruling party, Dr Bashiru, whose efforts are also recognized by these people, all the land conflicts that reached their desks were resolved in favour of the poor majority.

Mrs Ngombolwa, another resident of Mambegwa, laments the current inflation as she compares the situation with Magufuli's time. "As poor peasants, we can hardly take a step with the inflation in farm inputs. A bag of urea, which was sold at fifty thousand during Magufuli's era, now costs one hundred thousand shillings," says Ngombolwa. Magufuli's intentions to make Tanzania a sovereign state were evident in his words and actions. He understood that controlling food meant controlling the people and did not want them to be reliant on foreign masters. By banning research on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Magufuli demonstrated his commitment to food sovereignty, just as he did with energy sovereignty and the sovereignty over natural resources.


Magufuli Spirit lives on 

"This nation belongs to all of us. Those of us aged 60 and above are not building it for ourselves but for the younger generation and those after them. We should create an environment where our people will stop being slaves," said the late Magufuli on December 10th, 2018.

Indeed, the poor majority reveres the legacy of a man who never regarded them as second-class citizens. He saw street vendors as more than just nuisances to be removed from the cities and peasants and artisanal miners as valuable contributors, not obstacles to investors. To these poor people, this was the social justice they had longed for in a leader.

However, his unwavering stance on the sovereignty of our country and the protection of our resources was for the benefit of all. This is why we owe an apology to his spirit for those who attacked even this part of him. In the name of the "voiceless," these individuals turned Magufuli into an object of ridicule while defending those who plundered our resources. Now that their class interests are secured, they care less about the ongoing oppression of vendors and other impoverished people. This shows that their criticism of Magufuli was not about the agenda of the poor but rather about pursuing their selfish interests. It was merely a project backed by the West to tarnish Magufuli's image in the name of those he cared about the most.

For dubbing him a COVID denier and later adopting his stance on the same issue, it is evident that the West and its representatives owe him an apology. They may not openly admit that he was ahead of his time, but their actions speak for themselves. As for the poor people, their narrative sends a clear message that the West cannot choose our heroes for us. Our heroes may not be flawless, but we will judge them by our own standards and honour every effort they made to challenge the imperialist establishment. The late Magufuli was no saint, but despite his contradictions, this unspoken side speaks volumes about his role in the lives of poor people and the protection of our resources. That's why, to this day, the late Magufuli remains the chosen hero of the impoverished, and the worst nightmare of imperialists due to his resource nationalist stance. May his bold and daring spirit join the ancestors and continue to work through those he left behind.


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