DON'T MISS : Talking Africa New Podcast – Africa and the US: 'In Africa, people don't take us seriously'

Coronavirus: Tanzania’s handling of pandemic raises eyebrows

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 10 May – 15 May

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Tuesday, 12 May 2020 12:25, updated on Friday, 15 May 2020 10:34

Tanzania President and Drama
President John Magufuli gestures, during a rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. in October 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalfan Said

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.

Updated 10:30 Paris

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.

Magufuli: incommunicado

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.

Questionable leadership

“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.

READ MORE: East Africa’s battle with Coronavirus

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.

Tanzania has taken some measures, such as social distancing, temperature checks, and compulsory wearing of masks at critical installations such as airports, government offices, and public institutions. When the country recorded its first COVID-19, Magufuli shut down schools and public gathers.

But he has since berated a religious leader for shutting down a mosque, and publicly mulled about reopening the economy.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Rajoelina’s ‘remedy’ flows freely in Madagascar

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.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Tanzania’s economy resilient to pandemic impact

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.

*Translation of tweet below: Following the order by the provincial commissioner and Chair of the Defense and Security Committee of Dar es Salaam Province Paul Makonda on 6 May 2020, to members of parliament who are in Dar es Salaam rather than Parliament in Dodoma. He has given them 24 hours to return to Parliament.  Those who remain in Dar es Salaam are required to voluntarily report to the DCI Special Investigations Dar es Salaam for interrogation. “

 

“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.

Also in this in Depth:

Coronavirus: South Africa to rev economy by easing lockdown

Freedom beckons for parts of South Africa in the coming weeks, when the promise of lockdown restrictions being eased awaits areas least affected by COVID-19.   

Coronavirus: Nigeria’s proposed COVID-19 law tears the country apart

A bill seeking to replace the Quarantine Act with a Control of Infectious Disease Act that quickly passed first and second readings at the House of Representatives in April, is causing outrage in Nigeria.

Coronavirus: North Africa must develop its own strategy to ease lockdown

While the numbers of infections and deaths continue to rise across the African continent, North African countries have begun a gradual lifting of restrictions, but will that leave the region vulnerable to the pandemic?

Coronavirus: Nigeria’s varied responses to controlling COVID-19

Despite Nigeria's federal government and its task force against COVID-19 putting measures in place against the spread of the coronavirus, certain state governments have taken matters into their own hands to the benefit or detriment of their local population.

Coronavirus: Delay of AfCFTA is more bad news for Nigeria

Enforced lockdowns across the world to stop the spread of COVID-19 has led to the slowing down and even halt of several economies, wreaking havoc on the global economy. According to the IMF, the world is now in a recession. How will Nigeria fare in the midst of all of this?

Coronavirus: Food insecurity fallout from Nigeria’s lockdown

In a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus that has infected over 3000 people and killed over 100 people in Nigeria, a five week lockdown in Abuja, Lagos and the neighboring Ogun state was in effect. But as the number of people out in the street came to a near halt; the price of food took off, creating a difficult situation for many Nigerians.

Coronavirus: African artists hit by cancelled European festivals

Closed borders are depriving musicians of a significant portion of their income. Figures from the world music scene are mulling over the idea of creating a solidarity fund.

Coronavirus: Calls for free COVID-19 vaccine ahead of WHO assembly

The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation, opens its annual meeting on Monday 18 May against the backdrop of worsening geopolitical clashes over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus in Africa: an opportunity for innovative investment

The last couple months can only be characterized as unprecedented, as many countries and markets went from indifference of the pandemic to visible panic. In many emerging markets, the flight of capital coupled with slowed investments has further complicated fragile situations. Yet these unexpected and difficult times still present opportunity for investment.

We value your privacy

The Africa Report uses cookies to provide you with a quality user experience, measure audience, and provide you with personalized advertising. By continuing on The Africa Report, you agree to the use of cookies under the terms of our privacy policy.
You can change your preferences at any time.