With just months to go to the end of his first term, Tanzania's president John P. Magufuli is making global headlines once again, as his administration continues its somewhat questionable approach to controlling COVID-19 within its borders.
On 3 May, Tanzania’s head of state triggered global conspiracy theories after he said fruits and inanimate objects he had had secretly sent to the East African nation’s main lab had come back positive for COVID-19.
Since then, one of its southern neighbors, Zambia, has shut down its border with the country.
Former Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, also hinted during an interview with the BBC that President Magufuli has been incommunicado with other leaders in the region.
Odinga and Magufuli are close friends who have been involved in each other’s political and personal lives. The former Kenyan opposition leader, who also counts the DRC’s Felix Tsishekedi and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa among his buddies, has been crucial in rebuilding Kenya’s relationship with Tanzania.
“No, I haven’t talked to my friend. I’ve tried to reach him on phone, but I haven’t been successful,” said Odinga. “[So], I’ve left him a message on SMS.”
Magufuli’s unreachability is worrying other regional leaders, as his country shares land borders with eight countries in East and Southern Africa.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu’s decision to close his country’s border with Tanzania suggests the shared apprehension over Tanzania’s COVID-19 response, or lack thereof, could trigger coordinated action by regional leaders.
“President Magufuli isn’t providing leadership during the pandemic,” Tanzanian opposition leader Zitto Kabwe told The Africa Report. “He is hiding in his home village…he has failed as a leader and the country isn’t moving forward.”
Magufuli is currently the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa called a SADC meeting, after reportedly also being unable to reach the Tanzania President.
Elected five years ago on a ruling party ticket, President Magufuli’s recent actions are unsurprising to watchers in the region.
While his predecessors upheld Nyerere’s basic principles of socialism, Magufuli has based his administration on rolling back the clock.
He was widely praised for his open war against corruption and lethargy in the public service, and prison buses filled with former public officials became a familiar sight on Dar es Salaam’s streets.
He also slapped Acacia Mining, a subsidiary of the world’s biggest gold mining company, with a historic tax bill, and launched a failed attempt at getting rid of cartels in the country’s potentially lucrative cashew nut sector.
On his first working day as president, Magufuli marched to the Finance ministry and redirected an important public ceremony’s celebrations to the anti-cholera program.
He also moved funding from a Worlds AIDs day event to anti-retroviral drugs, as part of his widespread austerity measures that involved cutting his salary and government spending.
In 2016, he famously visited his wife in the country’s biggest hospital, winning praise for his confidence in the public health system.
After an initial wave of good press, ‘the Bulldozer’ as he was known during his two stints as Minister for Works, has been widely condemned for curtailing freedom of the press and politics, which included a failed assassination of a prominent opposition figure in November 2017.
Style of leadership during COVID-19 crisis
Of particular concern now is that his style of leadership is putting not only Tanzanians in danger, but also harming the region’s chances of stopping the spread of the pandemic and bouncing back quickly.
A former chemistry and math teacher with a doctorate in chemistry, President Magufuli has been openly skeptical of everything pandemic-related.
Although he closed down schools and public gatherings when Tanzania first recorded a COVID-19 case, he has since berated a religious leader for shutting down a mosque, and publicly mulled about reopening the economy.
He also ordered a planeload of an herbal potion being popularised by his counterpart in Madagascar, and has repeatedly asked his citizens to pray away the pandemic.
At nearly 500 cases and 16 deaths by early May, Tanzania’s approach to COVID-19 is unique in a region that has notable taken quick and drastic measures to curb the pandemic’s spread.
Magufuli’s East and Southern African counterparts have essentially locked down their capital cities and other areas, as they try to find the ideal balance between maintaining crucial trade links and guiding their nations through the global pandemic.
While President Magufuli’s scientific background makes him a rarity among his peers in the region, his decision to rely more on faith than evidence has shocked both friend and foe.
“What picture do they get when they see you, Mr President, personally going on with large and public meetings?” Kabwe, wrote in an open letter to Magufuli in the Daily Maverick.
Science versus faith
Other than the chemistry doctorate and a decade and a half spent serving in the cabinets of two of his predecessors, there’s little in President John Magufuli’s recent political and personal life that suggests he would have reacted any differently to a health crisis.
For example, the Tanzanian president is a follower of popular Nigerian preacher T.B Joshua, who claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic would end by 27 March. When that date had come and gone, he clarified his initial comment by stating the virus would stop spreading from where it had begun, in Wuhan China.
Around the same time, and in a recent tweet, President Magufuli asked the nation to “use the three days from 17th to 19th April to pray to God who can do all to help us evade this disease. Let us pray in our individual religions, he will hear us.”
When he landed in Tanzania for Magufuli’s inauguration ceremony in 2015, Joshua was treated like royalty, and welcomed into the country by the outgoing president, the incoming president, and the head of opposition at the time.
Joshua is widely popular in certain parts of Africa, including among southern African leaders, and over in Latin America. On Magufuli’s election, several news sites claimed it was the preacher who had encouraged his presidential ambitions as early as 2011.
Magufuli’s eldest son also claimed in a widely circulated video that the Nigerian preacher had healed him of a respiratory disease in 2013 when modern medicine had failed.
Push-back against Tanzania’s COVID-19 response
With his purge of both government and opposition ranks in the last five years, Magufuli currently has no formidable opposition in the country. The few that remain, such as ATC’s leaders, have put up some fight against Tanzania’s response, but they are doing so under pressure.
An Arusha-based advocate who said the situation is worse than reported, was quickly arrested in April.
After Kabwe asked his allies to avoid Parliament and self-isolate, President Magufuli asked the House not to pay them, and they have since been summoned by the security forces in Dar es Salaam.
On 6 May, the Dar es Salaam regional police boss asked the self-isolating legislators to report to the cops or they would be treated “in the same manner that we deal with prostitutes in the city streets.“
The MPs decision was informed by several unexplained deaths in the House, as well as in Magufuli’s cabinet.
“I saw the public notice but it has no legal basis. So I consider it as rubbish,” MP Kabwe told The Africa Report about the sermons.
In addition to demanding legislators stay and work in Dodoma, the new administrative capital, President Magufuli has also refused to lock down Dar es Salaam. He said that he would continue with other measures to curb the spread of the pandemic “but not by locking down Dar es Salaam.”
Such actions have caused concern among regional leaders and health professionals, who rightly worry that their proximity to Tanzania would undo the little progress they’ve made in containing the virus.
The WHO also denied that the coronavirus tests in Tanzania might be faulty (President Magufuli had hinted at sabotage). “We are not in agreement with [Magufuli’s] point of view,” WHO Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said in a media briefing earlier this month, “We are convinced that the tests… are not contaminated with the virus.”
Bottom Line: While Magufuli and his administration remain skeptical of COVID-19, it is unlikely that countries in the region will remain nonchalant about Tanzania.
In the short term, their only option might be to follow Zambia’s example and close their shared borders. It is also unlikely that outsiders will flock to the country after it eased some restrictions on international flights on 10 May, because no one knows for sure how widespread the pandemic is across Tanzania.
This article was published by The Africa Report.