On March 18 – a day after announcing that President John Magufuli had died from “a heart ailment” – the then Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, and all her security details and other top officials appeared in public wearing facemasks, something that hadn’t been seen in the East African nation since the onset of the deadly novel coronavirus last year.
Initially, this gave Africa and the world hope that the death of the covid denying president from what opposition members, and others, insist to be COVID-19 complications, had at long last brought the reality of the global pandemic home to the bustling nation of nearly 60 million.
However, that has not been the case, as it could as well have been the first and last time that Suluhu – who has since taken over as president – has been seen wearing a facemask.
Throughout the weeklong public funeral for the late president, both political leaders and ordinary Tanzanians appeared to continue with the same defiant attitude to the realities of the virus, that Magufuli, nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’, had been promoting with his insistence that prayers would make them immune to COVID-19.
Opposition To WHO Covid Guidelines, Vaccines
Magufuli had made global headlines for stubbornly refusing to implement all World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on the management of COVID-19 – instead insisting that God would protect his country’s citizens.
When the COVID-19 virus arrived in Tanzania in March last year, Magufuli resisted WHO-guidelines such as lockdowns, wearing of facemasks, sanitising and social distancing, instead urging people to go out to churches and mosques to pray.
“Coronavirus, which is a devil, cannot survive in the body of Christ… It will burn instantly,” Magufuli declared.
When Magufuli declared Tanzania “Covid-19 free” in June 2020, his government stopped co-operating with the global health body and there was little testing and right up to his death, no vaccination plans had been put in place. Those showing signs of the virus being encouraged, by the government, to rely on herbal concoctions and steam inhalation.
Then after Magufuli’s last public appearance on February 27, the disappearance of the Tanzanian leader from public view prompted wild speculation that the virus, whose deadly potency he had sought to underplay, had finally caught up with him.
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When opposition politicians raised questions about his unusual absence in Parliament, and rumours swirled that he had gone abroad for medical treatment, senior government officials had vehemently denied their leader was on his deathbed, instead claiming that he was “working hard” in his office.
Denial Despite The Death of Prominent Figures
Even though several high-ranking former and current officials had died from what many believed to be coronavirus, the government maintained its denial of the science and did not comment on their deaths.
The list of prominent Tanzanians who have also succumbed to what is widely suspected to be COVID-19 includes chief secretary to State House, John Kijazi; former deputy finance minister, Gregory Teu; and the former governor of Bank of Tanzania, Benno Ndulu. The death of the first vice-president of Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sharrif Hamad, stands apart as his party ACT Wazalendo confirmed had tested positive for COVID-19 just before his death.
In a passionate appeal to Tanzania after these deaths, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the situation in the country as “concerning” and urged it to follow scientific protocols, saying: “This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect the population in these countries and beyond.”
However, just before Magufuli disappeared from public life, he had made what many considered to be an admission of COVID-19 when he cautioned Tanzanians to take precautionary measures against an unspecified “respiratory ailment”.
In his congratulatory message to Suluhu, Dr Ghebreyesus expressed hope of working with the new leader to end the coronavirus pandemic. “I look forward to working with you to keep people safe from COVID-19, end the pandemic and achieve a healthier Tanzania. Together!” he said in a Tweet.
It remains to be seen if Tanzania’s new leader will break from the deadly policies of her predecessor by starting to take practical steps to fight the pandemic, especially as there has been serious concern from Tanzania’s neighbours that the denialist attitude is putting the whole region at grave risk.
To put it in context, all Tanzania’s neighbours – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Mozambique – have been strictly following the WHO guidelines and those of regional authorities like the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Glimmer of Hope for Democracy and Freedoms?
It’s not just in the strategy to fight COVID-19 that Magufuli’s death is hoped to bring change. Many Tanzanians hope that the change of leader will bring more freedoms in many other areas.
While Magufuli was credited with taking noticeable steps in fighting corruption and for initiating many infrastructural developments, his “bulldozing” tendencies resulted in him being seen by some as someone who had shifted towards dictatorship.
At the time of his death, Magufuli had developed a reputation of muzzling dissent, rolling back freedom of expression and association, and pushing through laws that served to entrench his rule.
Tundu Lissu, who was Magufuli’s challenger in the October 2020 election, fled the country fearing for his life, in addition to facing what he alleged were trumped-up charges of trying to overthrow the government. He remains in exile in Belgium.
Magufuli’s government banned opposition party rallies, closed the bank accounts of civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations, refused accreditation to foreign election observers and journalists, and introduced laws that critics said repressed independent reporting. He also overturned a concession that allowed schoolgirls that fall pregnant to resume their education after giving birth.
Last October’s elections were held in an information blackout after Magufuli ordered that the Internet be switched off. Rights groups also accused his government of failing to carry out credible investigations into the killings, abductions and persecution of journalists and opposition figures that appeared critical of the government. Even two days before Magufuli’s death, Tanzania police arrested a man accused of sharing the rumour about his suspected ill health.
Alarm at this authoritarian trend can perhaps be seen in the US government’s condolence message. The United States’ Department of State expressed its readiness to work with Tanzania towards “a democratic and prosperous path”. The message went on to say “we will continue to work with the Government of Tanzania to improve ties between the American and Tanzanian people,”
Spokesperson Ned Price said. “The United States remains committed to continuing to support Tanzanians as they advocate for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and work to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path.”