COVID-19 is casting Magufuli in the worst light, in an election year

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 18 May – 22 May

By Dan Paget, Aikande Clement Kwayu

Posted on Wednesday, 20 May 2020 17:58, updated on Tuesday, 2 June 2020 14:26
Tanzanian President John Magufuli waves as he attends a ceremony marking the country’s 58th independence anniversary in 2019. Stringer
Tanzanian President John Magufuli waves as he attends a ceremony marking the country’s 58th independence anniversary in 2019. Stringer/AFP via GettyImages

It began with Elizabeth Ane. President John Pombe Magufuli explained that he had suspected that the number of COVID-19 cases in Tanzania was being artificially inflated.

At his direction, test swabs were applied to non-human samples, including goats, sheep, pawpaw fruit, quails and oil.

READ MORE Coronavirus: Tanzania’s handling of pandemic raises eyebrows

The swabs were tubed and assigned human pseudonyms, including Elizabeth Ane. They were sent, thus disguised, to the national laboratory to be tested for COVID-19.

In a live television broadcast, Magufuli announced the results: COVID-19 false positives. This, he alleged, revealed a picture of foreign conspiracy and domestic collusion:

Some workers may have been put on the payroll of imperialists.

In a manner reminiscent of President Donald Trump, he insinuated that the World Health Organisation, at least by omission, was responsible. He announced purportedly good news too; Madagascar had discovered a herbal medicine for COVID-19. In an apparent celebration of the national airline, a plane was dispatched to collect doses.

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

Magufuli’s response to COVID-19 did not start – or end – with this test of tests. He introduced preventative measures to COVID-19 late and partially, which the WHO has suggested may have exacerbated the spread of the virus. He declared that COVID-19 was a “devil” (shetani) which “cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly.”

Later, he asked Tanzanians to defeat the devil in coronavirus through prayer, announced 3 days of national prayers against COVID-19 and has excluded churches and mosques from lockdown measures.

Magufuli had very different plans for 2020. General elections are scheduled for October, the first since his election as president five years ago.

Preparing for victory

During his five years in office Magufuli has declared and waged two “wars”: one against corruption, and another against, in his terms, imperialists (mabeberu). He claimed that these struggles were vital to advance the industrial transformation of Tanzania. He invoked this project to justify a sharp authoritarian turn.

He told the opposition to postpone politics so development could be pursued. He has alleged that the opposition sabotages national development and collaborates with foreigners.

A strong election victory would have affirmed the Magufuli project.

Whether Magufuli would win a greater share of the vote in a free and fair election is disputed. Many believe that Magufuli’s agenda galvanised widespread support. In 2016 his approval rating was 96%. However, in 2018 it fell to 55%. In fact, in Tanzania, survey respondents routinely over-report support for the ruling party and under-report support for the opposition. This throws Magufuli’s popularity into doubt.

But the election was not destined to be fair in any case. Five years of oppression have existentially threatened the opposition. Closing political space has silenced critics. In local elections held last year 2019, opposition candidates were disqualified en masse. As a result the opposition refused to participate in them.

Therefore, regardless of Magufuli’s popularity or unpopularity, his electoral prospects seemed sunny. He was touted to increase his party’s share of the vote. This would have arrested two election cycles – 2010 and 2015 – of popular decline.

In sum, victory was on the horizon, and as the adage goes, history is written by the victors. He had reason to hope that his agenda would be credited with the triumph, his controversial course as president would be vindicated, and his narrative would prevail.

Instead, 2020 is casting Magufuli in the worst of lights. His COVID-19 response throws other, negative aspects of the president and his programme into sharp relief. Instead of validating his vision it is bringing critical, dissenting perspectives to the fore.

The critics

One such perspective, much touted by the opposition, is of Magufuli as a tyrant. In authoritarian Tanzania, they argue, dissent is squashed and media is censored. Information is tightly controlled by the state.

Opposition leader Zitto Kabwe argues that this frustrates development. Civil activist Aidan Eyakuze argues that data secrecy makes it harder to correct mistakes by checking facts.

COVID-19 has brought awful immediacy to these assertions. The very real possibility has emerged that the state is covering up – or at least, not documenting – the scale of COVID-19 deaths. Rumours of unreported cases abound; video footage of night burials are circulating. Activists that have disputed official coverage have been arrested.

Opposition parties Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo have demanded for more transparency and openness. Some self-proclaimed supporters have pleaded with Magufuli to simply tell the truth.

Another line of attack against Magufuli is that he is a zealot. He has ostentatiously put his programme of industrialisation above all. He asked people to forego better lives today for better lives tomorrow. This urgency was applauded. But COVID-19 makes such dedication seem fanatical. Opposition leader Freeman Mbowe has alleged that Magufuli would rather sacrifice his citizens than the economy and his flagship economic projects.

Most of all, Magufuli’s response to COVID-19 will lend credence to others’ view that he is reckless. Others have described Magufuli as paranoid or a “petty dictator”. His moniker “The Bulldozer” originally signified building and determination; it has been reinterpreted as destructive.

But Magufuli’s COVID-19 response is bringing to the fore another, often overlooked perspective: the president as politician and rhetorician. His apparently spontaneous behaviour is often strategic. His ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks are strategic. While his response to COVID-19 may seem unhinged, it is also straight out of his normal playbook.

When he waged an ‘economic war’, the pretext was the alleged discovery of years of under-reporting of mineral exports by foreign mining companies. Exposing fraudulent COVID-19 test kits approved by the WHO runs off the same script.

The dismissal of the eminently qualified National Laboratory Director Nyambura Moremi also sounds like a return to old tactics. Magufuli has made firing public officials a signature move. It displays decisive action and finds scapegoats which leave president and party unblemished by blame.

His response also drags COVID-19 into a nationalist sphere which will cloud future debate. If international conspiracy is inflating test results, then those that report higher infection – or death-rates – would be collaborators. Those that dispute official results would be seditious. He is subsuming COVID-19 into a nationalist struggle.

Meanwhile, the state-owned press is showering Magufuli with praise in a reassertion of his preferred narrative.

Jury is still out

Which of these interpretations of President Magufuli will prevail remains uncertain. He may succeed in vilifying his critics and suppressing alternative information. However, against the backdrop of this political struggle, the spread of COVID-19 will continue. The subordination of COVID-19 to regime politics is a tragedy in the making.

This tragedy is accompanied by another: Magufuli’s projects elevate worthy causes, but also sullies them. Corruption is indeed widespread. Foreign companies are indeed exploitative. Not all aid is sent with the best intentions. Industrialisation is a worthy goal.

Tanzania ought to aspire to better lives for it citizens. These causes are laudable and it is good that Magufuli pursues them. But his conduct over COVID-19 and democracy tarnishes them by association.The Conversation

Dan Paget, Teaching Fellow at University College London, UCL et Aikande Clement Kwayu, Independent researcher & Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons. Read the original article.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Hopping to another crisis: Locusts and coronavirus in East Africa

As if taken from the playbook of an infuriated deity, buzzing black clouds cast shadows across countless fields in rural Ethiopia.

Coronavirus: South African Distell trying to curb hit from pandemic

Distell has toasted the performance of its Kenyan operations, while it is mulling the sale of two premium wine farms and other cost-reduction measures in South Africa as it grapples with COVID-19 restrictions.    

Coronavirus: Demolition of hotels in Rivers State illegal use of lockdown?

Many countries, including Nigeria, announced lockdowns to combat the coronavirus. Different states in Nigeria implemented their own policies.

Coronavirus: South Sudan’s Riek Machar latest victim of COVID-19

The South Sudanese Vice-President, Riek Machar, and his wife, Defence Minister Angelina Teny, will self-quarantine for the next two weeks, after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Coronavirus: Is WHO Chief Tedros Ghebreyesus on the chopping block?

When Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus formally announced his candidacy for the post of the Director-General of the World Health Organization on 24 May 2016, he certainly received a mixed bag of interest and expectations.

Coronavirus: DRC doctor says clinical trials can begin using artemisia

Félix Tshisekedi received Jérôme Munyangi, who had just returned from living in exile in France. We had a chance to interview the Congolese doctor and researcher who advocates using artemisia to combat the coronavirus.

Coronavirus: 3D print of ventilators, easy and cheap to produce says lead researcher

During this period of unprecedented strain on global healthcare systems, governments and hospitals are calling for solutions that will address the shortage of ventilators and other critical equipment to save lives during the pandemic.

Burundi: WHO reps expelled ahead of polls set to go, despite COVID-19

Burundi expelled World Health Organisation (WHO) representatives in the country and warned election observers from the region that they would have to go into quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Nigeria VS Coronavirus: Cutting naira’s umbilical dependence on oil

The fragility of the reserves being used to support the naira and it's revalued rate shows that Nigeria needs to find new ways of earning foreign currency. In the first story of our series on the impact of COVID-19 on Nigeria, we look how its economy considers strategies to reduce the naira’s dependence on volatile oil prices.