Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
A man holds a newspapers following the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Picture: REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman
A man holds a newspapers following the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Picture: REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman

By May 8 last year, Tanzania had recorded 509 cases of Covid-19 and 21 deaths. That was against a global total of 3.8-million cases and 269,000 deaths.

Just over 10 months later, the cumulative tally worldwide is 121-million, with 2.7-million deaths.

Tanzania’s statistics, however, remain unchanged.

The stubborn persistence of that figure is no accident of fate, and it’s certainly no indicator of good governance. It’s emblematic of the steady erosion of transparency, accountability and freedom that has taken place under the leadership of President John Magufuli, who died this week.

Tanzania simply stopped providing information to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from May, when Magufuli suspended the head of the national laboratory, claiming a goat, quail and pawpaw had tested positive for the coronavirus – a claim roundly rejected by both the African Centres for Disease Control and the WHO.

Three months later, he proclaimed Covid to be “absolutely finished” in Tanzania, writes Abdi Latif Dahir in the New York Times – the result of the power of prayer. “We put God first,” Magufuli said, “and God heard us.”

It was, of course, a marvellous sleight of hand. If there aren’t numbers to prove otherwise, who’s to say you’re wrong? And if you’ve cowed the local media and civil society organisations into silence, who’s going to contradict you?

Praying the corona away

Only, Magufuli hadn’t prayed the coronavirus away. 

In January the US embassy in Tanzania warned of a “significant increase” in Covid cases, Dahir reports, and limited hospital capacity that “could result in life-threatening delays”. And the Roman Catholic Church took the government to task for its mulish silence.

In just three weeks in February, 10 prominent Tanzanians died for reasons mostly unknown (or, as the country’s Citizen newspaper diplomatically put it: “Death robs Tanzania of 10 prominent citizens”). 

Among them was Zanzibar’s first vice-president Seif Sharif Hamad, who had actually acknowledged he had Covid (the M&G has a wonderful obituary for him here), as well as John Kijazi, Magufuli’s chief secretary, who, like Magufuli, ostensibly died of a heart condition.

Finance minister Philip Mpango had to be trotted out of hospital to dispel rumours of his own demise. Though, as Dahir notes elsewhere, Mpango “was not particularly reassuring when, flanked by unmasked doctors, be began wheezing and coughing fitfully”.

When legislators began expressing concern about growing deaths from “pneumonia”, it elicited the kind of climb-down that our own EFF would be proud of. Where Magufuli once treated masks and social distancing with contempt, and eschewed vaccines in favour of unproven herbal remedies, he was reluctantly forced to acknowledge an increase in “respiratory disease” and suggest the need for circumspection – and face masks, even.

Then he disappeared from public view – either holed up in a hospital in Kenya or India, or “around, healthy and working hard” (the official line). After weeks of speculation, vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan announced on Wednesday that he had died of a heart condition. He was 61.

Democratic decline

Magufuli’s rise to power ahead of the 2015 presidential elections took even members of his own party by surprise, Aikande Clement Kwayu writes in an obituary for The Conversation Africa.

A former science teacher and industrial chemist, he’d been a stalwart of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi: an MP since 1995 and minister overseeing various portfolios, where he gained a reputation for being a hardworking straight arrow. But he was hardly the party favourite.

When prime contender Edward Lowassa was forced to resign over a corruption scandal, former president Benjamin Mkapa thrust Magufuli into the political limelight.

Elected on an anti-corruption platform, he became an overnight sensation. 

As Jonathan Rosen writes in a 2019 evaluation of Magufuli’s presidency, he canned independence day celebrations in favour of spending those funds on a cholera programme; he purged 10,000 “ghost workers” from the state payroll; and he would not tolerate underperformance (he once fired two municipal directors after scolding them on live TV when they couldn’t tell him what their budget was for road construction).

He paid surprise visits to public officials, writes Dahir, slashed the cushy travel budgets of public servants; and when cashew farmers complained about being paid poorly for their crop, he sent the army in to purchase cashew nuts at higher prices.

It garnered him an almost messianic following. “What would Magufuli do?” became the “What would Jesus do?” of African politics.

Magufuli’s was a necessary turn to populism, Karuti Kanyinga wrote for The Conversation Africa after his re-election election last year. With no consolidated power base in the ruling party, he had to ensure his own political survival. For that, he needed the support of the Tanzanian people. 

And so he sought out popular targets: he clamped down on corruption, took aim at the rich, “told off” international donors and “looked to solve the petty problems that ordinary people faced”.

It wasn’t to last. Within 3½ years, Rosen writes, his administration had imprisoned political rivals, pop stars and journalists; introduced regulations that narrowed the media space; discontinued the live broadcast of parliamentary debates. 

Media houses that fell foul of the government had their operations suspended (for up to 11 months in one case); teen mothers were barred from returning to school; opposition rallies were limited. (For more on the chilling effect on investment, this is an interesting analysis by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies’ Marielle Harris.)

When Magufuli took the reins in Tanzania, the country was considered a beacon of stability and democracy (albeit a dominant-party one) in a sometimes fractious region. International research outfit Freedom House, for example, gave it a solid 60 out of 100 in its 2016 Freedom in the World report, a measure of political and civil liberties for the preceding year.

For the 2021 report, the country was able to muster just 34.

And Magufuli’s approval ratings, once measured at 96% by East African NGO Twaweza, had dropped to 55% by July 2018. (Twaweza executive director Aidan Eyakuze had his passport seized after the 2018 report was released, according to Rosen.)

A short six years ago, Magufuli injected enthusiasm and hope for a new generation of leader – a new era of clean governance and accountability. Instead, he leaves behind a polarised society, shattered opposition, and an infrastructure woefully ill-equipped to manage a new wave of a devastating pandemic.

We may never know the truth of Magufuli’s last days, or whether his death could have been prevented by a more proactive Covid response in Tanzania. It does seem, though, that he was felled by his own hubris. 

A death by denial.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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