Tanzania’s President Magufuli Bulldozes the Civil Service: Is This an Anticorruption Breakthrough?

For decades (perhaps longer), the corruption problem in Sub-Saharan Africa has seemed intractable. With only a handful of exceptions (such as Botswana, and more recently Rwanda), Sub-Saharan African countries score poorly on measures like Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and direct surveys of African citizens tend to confirm that the frequency of petty bribery, while both lower and more variable than some Westerners think, are much higher than in most other countries. Declarations of war on corruption have also been a feature of African politics for decades, to the point where both citizens themselves and outside observers have grown cynical about the will or capacity of leaders to clean up the system.

But there are some preliminary, hopeful signs that in at least some major Sub-Saharan countries, things may be starting to change for the better. The country that probably gets the most attention, at least among commentators outside of Africa, seems to be Nigeria, where President Buhari—a former strongman-style President whom some have characterized as a kind of “born-again” reformer—has made anticorruption a centerpiece of both his election campaign and his administration. (For some discussions of President Buhari’s anticorruption efforts, on this blog and elsewhere, see here, here, here, and here.) But to me—as a non-expert with only the most superficial knowledge of the region or its politics—the more interesting developments are actually occurring in Tanzania, under the administration of President John Magufuli.

President Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer”, was elected in 2015, and pledged—like many other leaders, in Tanzania, Africa, and elsewhere—to root out corruption in the government. But unlike most other leaders who make such pledges, President Magufuli actually seems to be following through.

Some of his early actions appeared mainly symbolic. He fired the long-serving head of the Prevention and Combatting of Corruption Bureau (PCCB), Edward Hoseah, suggesting—somewhat unfairly, in my view—that Mr. Hoseah had been slow and ineffective. (President Magufuli promoted Mr. Hoseah’s deputy, Valentino Mlowola, to take over the PCCB, and it’s not clear whether there’s been much change in the scope or pace of PCCB investigations.) President Magufuli also started making surprise visits to government offices—asking pointed questions about the whereabouts of workers not at their desks—and significantly curbed government spending on perks like foreign travel and fancy events (such as Independence Day celebrations). That sort of thing is not meaningless—symbolism matters, after all—but if that was all there was, I wouldn’t be so interested in recent developments in Tanzania. What mainly caught my attention was President Magufuli’s aggressive purge of the civil service. Consider the following (incomplete) timeline:

  • In March 2016, President Magulfuli announced that he would cut wages for the highest-paid civil servants by almost two-thirds, on the grounds that overpayment of senior officials was wasteful expenditure, and that senior officials unhappy with the wage cut should “start looking for alternative jobs.”
  • In May 2016, President Magulfuli’s administration removed more than 10,000 “ghost workers” from its public sector payroll, as the result of an audit that had been initiated the previous March (around the same time the President announced he would cut senior civil service wages).
  • In December 2016, President Magufuli fired almost the entire senior management of the Tanzania Port Authority (TPA), over allegations of corruption.
  • In May 2017, President Magufuli fired approximately 9,900 government workers for falsifying their academic credentials. (The President described them as “thieves” who should be prosecuted, and further ordered that the names of the malfeasants be published in order to shame them.)

I’m in no position to evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of these policy decisions, but a few things about President Magufuli’s aggressive posture toward the civil service, and his anticorruption campaign more generally, struck me as interesting:

  • First, the move to cut civil service salaries runs against the grain of the usual policy advice on fighting corruption in the civil service. The more typical argument on the relationship between salaries and corruption is that raising salaries is important to reducing government corruption, on the logic that officials who receive a higher salary are less likely to engage in corruption (perhaps because they have more to lose if they are caught and fired, or perhaps because they are more satisfied with their pay and feel less need to supplement their incomes). True, this argument about raising salaries usually focuses on lower-level employees, while President Magufuli proposed cutting salaries only for the best-paid civil servants. But the argument that paying officials higher salaries is a good way to reduce corruption is often applied to senior officials as well – Singapore is the classic example. What’s going on here? My conjecture is that President Magufuli’s strategy has less to do with affecting the incentives of the senior civil servants that he’s got than with getting many of them to leave. If he thinks that the senior administration is rotten with corruption, or simply bloated, and he doesn’t have the ability to fire everybody he wants, he can make the senior civil service jobs much less appealing by cutting wages dramatically. If that’s the strategy, and it’s successful, then we might see an eventual rise in salaries later on, particularly once the government decides it needs to attract competent “new blood.”
  • The idea that President Magufuli’s strategy is to purge the civil service of the “rot” or “dead wood” is also consistent not only with the dismissal of the TPA, but also with the more recent dismissals of government employees who submitted fake credentials. My understanding (and I acknowledge I could be wrong) is that falsifying credentials, including university certificates, is quite common in many developing countries. That’s not to say it’s justified, or that such falsification is not a perfectly legitimate reason, on its own, to dismiss a government worker. But I’d conjecture that the recent focus this issue in Tanzania serves at least two other functions. First, one might plausibly believe that faking credentials is correlated with other sorts of dishonest behavior, including bribe-taking and embezzlement, such that getting rid of civil servants with false credentials may also get of the most corrupt government employees, notwithstanding the fact that direct proof of (other kinds of) corruption may be lacking. Second, part of the point may be simply to get rid of a substantial number of civil servants, in order to replace them with new people, or simply to reduce the size of the government workforce – just as the salary cut for senior staff may have performed a similar function. I know essentially nothing about Tanzanian employment law, but based on what I know about other countries’ civil service protections, I’m going to hazard a guess that it would be extremely difficult – both legally and politically – for the President simply to fire almost 2% of the civil service (9,900 out of approximately 550,000) without cause, or on suspicion. By focusing on something objective and easily confirmed, like a fake degree, the administration can remove substantial numbers of civil servants more easily.
  • At the risk of stating an obvious banality, it’s not clear how much of an impact these changes will have on the overall culture of the civil service. Even though the actions seem dramatic, the quantitative impact on the civil service overall is limited. If corruption is genuinely pervasive in the Tanzanian bureaucracy – as Tanzania’s dismal CPI score and bribery experience survey results would suggest – then firing around 1.8% of the civil service isn’t likely to do very much. On the other hand, symbolism is important, and dramatic moves can have a powerful deterrent effect, especially if they cause potential malfeasants to dramatically overestimate the probability that they themselves will be targeted in the future. My perception is that the Magufuli administration is deliberately going for dramatic effect – that’s why, I’m guessing, it chose to announce the dismissal of close to ten thousand civil servants all at once. Doing so makes much more of an attention-grabbing media splash, which I suspect is precisely the point.
  • Finally, while it’s too soon to tell if President Magufuli’s reforms will clean up the civil service, I do think it’s worth highlighting a feature of his approach that some, especially those of us from Western liberal democracies, might find a bit troubling. President Magufuli’s anticorruption drive is very President-centered and seems quite unilateral. The president’s critics have accused him of stifling dissent and acting like a would-be dictator. I don’t know what to make of these charges, because they’re inevitably leveled at powerful executives who pursue aggressive policies, and the charges are sometimes appropriate, sometimes not, and sometimes somewhere in between. While I’m in no position to advance an opinion on the Magufuli administration, these criticism do draw attention to a more general concern: Many of the modern anticorruption “success stories” – jurisdictions that, within the last 40 years or so, are thought to have substantially reduced corruption – where characterized by very powerful executives not subject to much in the way of meaningful institutional checks and balances. Hong Kong and Singapore are classic examples here, and Georgia is a more recent illustration. Even Botswana, a democracy, was for an extended period ruled by a single party with a very powerful leader. This is not to say that concentrated executive power in general or on average tends to produce lower corruption. For every example of a powerful executive who took unilateral action to fight corruption, there are probably a half-dozen counterexamples of powerful dictators who looted their country. But it does raise questions about the extent to which dramatic and rapid anticorruption reform is compatible with other things that people like me would categorize as other aspects of “good governance,” such as strong institutional checks and balances.

One thought on “Tanzania’s President Magufuli Bulldozes the Civil Service: Is This an Anticorruption Breakthrough?

  1. Pingback: Tanzania’s President Magufuli Bulldozes the Civil Service: Is This an Anticorruption Breakthrough? | Matthews' Blog

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