Hailed as Africa’s most beloved president upon election 16 months ago to lead East Africa’s second largest economy, the conversion of Tanzanian head of state John Magufuli from an exemplary leader to the so-called typical African despot has been dramatic.

Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ for his tremendous work ethic, he received global acclaim after one of his early acts as the country’s fifth president was to participate in a street cleaning exercise that endeared him to many, particularly after an image of him riding back to his office on a bicycle was beamed around the world.

Magufuli also won plaudits for his commitment to cleansing the country of corruption and extravagant spending by government in the midst of economic problems and ridding the country of thousands of ghost workers drawing vast salaries from government monthly.

That was in line with an election campaign the Chama Cha Mapinduzi candidate built on his image as a no-nonsense, corruption-fighting man of the people. But, dramatically, an increasingly dictatorial Magufuli’s reputation is tattered by a series of crackdowns.

A few months after assuming office, Magufuli stopped the live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings, stating that government could no longer afford it. All political rallies are banned until 2020 so the country, according to him, focuses on work.

He is under immense criticism for undermining democracy by curbing political activity and cracking down on dissent. The latest incident is the sacking of a minister for ordering a probe into the president’s ally and the arrest of a popular musician whose lyrics authorities said were too critical of Magufuli.

Information Minister Nape Nnauye the second to be fired after another was dismissed for allegedly turning up at work drunk, has been dismissed after he criticised Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul Makonda for leading a group of armed men to Tanzania’s main private broadcaster to demand the airing of a demeaning video aimed at undermining a popular local pastor with whom Makonda has a dispute.

A woman claims to have an illegitimate child with the pastor. The broadcaster refused to air the allegations. The minister visited the station in the wake of the invasion and launched an immediate probe. He called on Magufuli to sanction Makonda. It is Nnauye who was fired instead.

“This eventuality clearly depicts President Magufuli who has been praised for performance in the executive and public service to be using claims of fighting corruption and incompetence only to victimise those political leaders that are not politically correct,” said East Africa political analyst Alexander Opicho.

“Magufuli is only following the trend of other African leaders that usually entrench their tyranny by first frustrating the opposition, the media, the civil societies, and the rule of law.”

Nnauye is not the only individual to feel the wrath of Magufuli and his government. At the end of March rapper Emmanuel Elibariki, also known as Nay wa Mitego, was arrested for releasing a song deemed insulting to the government.

The song “Wapo” trended on social media, especially Whatsapp, and although it does not mention Magufuli by name, it bemoaned a crackdown on dissent. Whatsapp has landed several people before Elibariki in trouble with authorities.

For alleged criticism of Magufuli on social media platforms, at least 10 bloggers face imprisonment of three years and/or a fine of US3000 under the country’s cybercrime laws.

Elibariki has been released on a warning but it emerged Magufuli had ordered the controversial song’s lyrics be watered down before it can be released commercially.

“The music must be improved to address other prevailing society evils [such] as tax evasion and drug trade,” Information Minister Harrison Mwakyembe – Nnauye’s successor – quoted Magufuli as saying.

Opposition and rights groups have expressed disquiet. “It was wrong to arrest Nay. The president’s order is also meaningless,” opposition leader Zitto Kabwe of the Alliance for Change said.

The rapper’s arrest came days after Magufuli warned media owners in the country to “be careful”, lest they abuse their press freedom and pursue inflammatory journalism. This followed the media’s criticism of the government’s handling of the two incidents.

“Media owners, be careful. Watch it. If you think you have that kind of freedom – not to that extent,” he said at the swearing-in ceremony for Mwakyembe.

Opicho urged Magufuli to respect freedom of speech through media outlets as a fundamental right of humanity and a key pillar of democracy planted in Tanzania by founding president Julius Nyerere.

“Gagging media freedom by use of state terror will only put Tanzania on a retrogressive path of economic welfare and governance,” Opicho said.

The president has had a long running battle with the media. Since his inauguration, two radio stations and some popular newspapers have been shut down for “abusing” the president and “publishing false information that he said could cause chaos” respectively.

Last November, Magufuli ratified the Media Services Bill, a new media law, replacing the 1970s Newspaper Act. It provides for severe prison sentences and fines and restricts the freedom of journalists by allowing more control over the content of publications and requiring the registration of journalists.

Moreover, it obliges any user of social media platforms and their contributors to be accredited.

“Today, Tanzania is witnessing an unprecedented interference by the executive in the media world,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, head of the Africa office of Reporters Without Borders.

In early March, Magufuli ordered the seizure of passports belonging to foreign employees of an Indian company working on a water project in Lindi town in southern Tanzania.

He accused the head of Overseas Infrastructure Alliance Rajendra Kumar and his assistants of taking too long to complete the US13 million project.

In a move the government believes comes in the wake of foreign infrastructure companies dragging their feet in finishing key projects in the country, they will get their travel documents when the project is complete.

Kabwe has warned Magufuli risked being a “one-term” president. “He is sowing the seeds of a dictatorship. Opposition leaders will not accept that,” he said.

Magufuli has dismissed the criticism against his leadership. “I will continue with this governance style until things improve. Dictatorship is a perception by some people and everyone has their own view of the term,” he told media in Dar es Salaam.

– By ANA