This Politician's Philosophy: No Perks For You | KUOW News and Information

This Politician's Philosophy: No Perks For You

Jan 6, 2016
Originally published on January 7, 2016 3:33 pm

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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A video recently popped up on Twitter from Tanzania. It shows a guy ironing his shirt with a hot kettle. He doesn't have an iron. And the hashtag that goes along with it - #WhatWouldMagufuliDo. Magufili is the new president of Tanzania. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that behind this joke is a serious campaign.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's a tough life for a Tanzanian public official these days. No more driving your limousine to villages. No more flying first class to meetings in Europe. You can't even send a Christmas card on the taxpayer's dime. President John Magufuli, elected in November, has banned these things. He canceled the country's Independence Day celebrations, saying it would be shameful to spend millions of dollars on military parades in a country battling cholera. And Magufuli is pro-austerity big and small. He even restricted the amount of refreshments allowed at official meetings.

EMMANUEL MAKUNDI: There will be only juices and water and maybe some bananas to entertain themselves during the meeting. But the president says you can take your breakfast at home.

WARNER: Emmanuel Makundi is journalist for Radio France International Swahili service in Dar es Salaam. He says the new president is also cracking down on corruption, and Makundi has seen the biggest change in public hospitals.

So we sent a reporter to be the Muhimbili National Hospital in the capital. It's a 1,000-bed university teaching hospital that's supposed to be subsidized, except there's a catch because typically, patients say, if you'd come here before and asked for medication, you'd be directed to an outside shop to pay inflated prices, a kind of back-channel bribe to hospital staff.

MINA CORINEL: OK, my name is Mina. Yeah, I can see some changes.

WARNER: Mina Corinel is a patient here. She says the changes came since a certain president made a surprise visit to this hospital. He found patients sleeping on the floor and fired the hospital director. Since then, she says the doctors have been noticeably more attentive.

CORINEL: They are passing by every time to see if any one of the patients need medicine or injections - yeah, like that.

WARNER: In his previous government post, Magufuli was nicknamed the Bulldozer. And a few weeks ago, he arrested 20 officials whose only crime was showing up late to a meeting. That cheered people here, tired of lackluster civil servants. But intimidation tactics can go only so far. There is a direct link between public corruption and the low pay of civil servants, and that's across the board, from police stations to public hospitals. Dr. Billy Haonga is the president of the Tanzanian Medical Association. He says two years ago, doctors protested in the streets over low salaries. He says the average public doctor takes home just $6,000 a year.

BILLY HAONGA: It has been a complaint for so long. Doctors are paid very little. We expect perhaps they'll increase the budget next year.

WARNER: Those expectations mean that President Magufuli is trying to increase tax collection as well as shave costs. Political analyst Abdulkarim Atiki says he's hoping the changes stick. But reformers have come and gone in Tanzania before. He says the opposition party has already coined a phrase in Swahili for the presidential reforms.

ABDULKARIM ATIKI: Nguvu Ya Soda.

WARNER: Nguvu Ya Soda - the power of soda.

ATIKI: The power of the soda. The power of Coca-Cola (laughter).

WARNER: They're making a bet that Magufuli's reforming spirit will fizzle out like an open bottle of soda in the hot African sun. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.