It’s a hard life for Tanzanian public officials these days.
No more driving your limousine to villages.
No more flying first class to meetings in Europe.
You can’t even send Christmas cards on the taxpayer’s dime.
President John Magufuli, elected in October, has banned these things. He canceled the country’s Independence Day celebrations, saying it would be shameful to spend millions of dollars on fancy parties and military parades in a country battling cholera. And he even restricted the amount of refreshments allowed at official meetings.
“There will be only juices and water,” says Emmanuel Makundi, a journalist for Radio France’s International Swahili service in Dar es Salaam. “And maybe some bananas. But the president says, you can take your breakfast at home!”
The president’s love of austerity has even inspired a hashtag: #WhatWouldMagufuliDo
Tanzanians are posting photos of tongue-in-cheek money-saving measures: using office markers as a cheap fill-in for eyeliner, replacing a broken iron with a hot water kettle to get the wrinkles out of a shirt, arming the military with bows and arrows.
Saving money is just part of the 56-year-old president’s agenda. The former teacher and chemist is also battling corruption and trying to improve services in Tanzania. Take health care, for example. Magufuli made a surprise visit to the 1,000-bed Muhimbili National Hospital and found patients sleeping on the floor. The hospital director was fired. Now doctors are noticeably more attentive.
Doctors are hopeful they’ll see their salaries go up. Two years ago, they protested in the streets over their low pay. “It has been a complaint for so long,” says Dr. Billy Haonga, president of the Tanzanian Medical Association, who says the average public doctor takes home $6,000 a year. “Doctors are paid very little. We expect that perhaps they’ll increase the budget next year.”
That would mean Magufuli needs to increase tax collection in addition to shaving costs.
What are his chances for success? In his previous government post as works minister, Magufuli was nicknamed the Bulldozer. And he clearly is pushing ahead. A few weeks ago, he arrested 20 officials who showed up late to a meeting.
But reformers have come and gone in Tanzania before. The opposition party has already coined a phrase in Swahili for the presidential reforms: “Nguvu ya soda.”
That means “the power of soda.”
Opponents are betting that Magufuli’s reforming spirit will fizzle out like an open bottle of soda in the hot African sun.