Tanzanian president, John Magufuli, died on Wednesday in the port city of Dar es Salaam aged 61. Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said in a brief televised address that Mr. Magufuli had died of heart complications while being treated at Mzena Hospital. She announced 14 days of national mourning and said that flags would fly at half-mast nationwide.
Mr. Magufuli’s death came just days after speculations that he was sick with Covid-19. The rumours were propelled by Mr Tundu Lissu, the opposition figure in exile’s alert that the president had covid-19 and was being treated in a hospital in neighbouring Kenya.
John Magufuli, a trained chemist, rose on the crest of his popularity as an anti-corruption warrior, who earned the sobriquet The Bulldozer, to the highest office in Tanzania.
He was born to peasant parents in Chato, north-west Tanzania, in 1959 and studied Chemistry and Mathematics at the University of Dar es Salaam, after which he worked as a Chemistry and Maths teacher.
Magufuli was first elected to parliament in 1995 and became a cabinet minister in 2000. He earned a reputation for fighting corruption while working in cabinet positions, including as the minister of lands, fisheries, and public works. Then he was elected president in October 2015 on an anti-corruption platform.
President Magufuli was initially extolled locally and regionally for his efforts to boost the economy, curtail wasteful spending and upgrade Tanzania’s infrastructure.
But “The Bulldozer,” was soon accused of muzzling dissent, rolling back freedom of expression and association, and pushing through laws that strengthened his National Revolutionary Party’s grip on power.
That marked a sharp departure from policies of his two immediate predecessors, who had promoted their East African nation as a peaceful, business-friendly democracy.
During his first term, Magufuli’s government banned opposition rallies, revoked the licenses of nongovernmental organisations and introduced laws that critics said repressed independent reporting. He also said that pregnant girls should not be allowed in school.
Rights groups accused his government of failing to carry out credible investigations into the killings, abductions and persecution of journalists and opposition figures who were critical of the government.
As Mr. Magufuli sought a second term last year, the authorities made it harder for opposition parties to campaign, froze the bank accounts of civil society groups, denied accreditation to election observers and journalists, and barred opposition representatives from entering polling stations.
On voting day, at least 10 people were killed when violence broke out in the semiautonomous archipelago of Zanzibar after citizens said they had seen soldiers delivering marked ballots.
President Magufuli won that election with 84 percent of the vote amid accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities. Tundu Lissu, the main opposition candidate running against him, was accused of trying to overthrow the government and had to leave the country. He remains in exile in Belgium.
While other world leaders were implementing lockdowns recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of measures to check the novel coronavirus global pandemic, Magufuli, a scientist, joined the league of conspiracy theorists and science mockers like former US president, Donald Trump, and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, to scoff at the virus and the scientific approach to curtailing it.
Magufuli, a renowned Catholic, called for prayers instead of face masks, and stopped the publication of statistics in April 2020 when the country had recorded a total of 509 cases and 16 deaths.
He made Tanzania to become an outlier in a region which quickly implemented lockdowns, night-time curfews and travel restrictions to stem infections.
In May last year, the president announced that he had submitted a variety of fruit and animals to be tested for the virus and that a papaya, a quail (bird) and a goat tested positive, proving “sabotage” at the national laboratory. This ‘result’, which suited the purpose of conspiracy theorists, went viral on social media.
Magufuli, one of Africa’s most prominent coronavirus sceptics, called for prayers and herbal-infused steam therapy to counter the virus. He later claimed that prayer had saved the country from Covid-19.
“That’s why we are all not wearing face masks here. You think we don’t fear dying? It’s because there is no Covid-19,” he said.
However, by last month, as infections soared and the Vice President of Zanzibar was reported to have died from Covid-19, the Tanzanian president conceded that the virus did in fact exist.
Nevertheless, he warned his health ministry not to rush into procuring vaccines, saying they were “dangerous”.
The Magufuli narrative holds profound lessons for leadership, especially in Africa. Political office seekers brandish sterling credentials and alluring electioneering slogans, such as Power to the People, For the Many Not the Few, Make America Great Again! Real Change Now, A Better Alternative, Next Level, Let’s Get the Country Working Again, No to Poverty, Transformation Time, Kick out Corruption, and so on and so on.
Today’s Animal Farm: By Tony Ekata
As soon as they get into office, or maybe a little bit later, they change themselves instead of changing the country for the better, as they had promised. What causes this is debatable. Is it hubris, ego, innate incompetence, hypocrisy, or what the Bible describes as the “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”?
Whatever it is, is it not puzzling that a man with a doctorate in Chemistry would subject scientific research and empirical tests to ridicule?
Yet, he is not alone. Magufuli might have been fooled by the infamous example of the erstwhile leader of the most powerful nation on earth; former US president, Donald Trump. Trump will be remembered for his contribution to the uncontrollable spread of Covid-19 in America with his attitude of mocking those wearing masks, especially his opponent in the 2020 presidential election, now president, Joe Biden. Trump held reckless maskless social events and political rallies and confessed that he had deliberately downplayed the deadliness of the virus. Magufuli did the same.
Tanzania has not shared data on the coronavirus with the WHO since April, and it has reported just 509 cases and 21 deaths, figures that have been widely viewed with scepticism.
As vaccine rollouts began worldwide, Dr Magufuli discouraged the health ministry from securing doses for Tanzania.
“Vaccines don’t work,” he claimed in a speech to a maskless crowd in late January. “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccines for aids would have been brought. Vaccines for tuberculosis would have made it a thing of the past. Vaccines for malaria would have been found. Vaccines for cancer would have been found.”
Such statements drew condemnation from the World Health Organization as well as the Roman Catholic Church in Tanzania. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, urged the Tanzanian government to prepare the infrastructure to distribute the doses, writing on twitter, “Science shows that #Vaccineswork.”
Closer home, Magufuli appears to have a disciple in Nigeria’s Kogi state governor, the youngest governor in the country, Yahaya Bello, who is said to be nursing presidential ambition. Last year, Yahaya said on Channels Television that there was no case of Covid-19 in Kogi state, boasting:
“I have taken a position and I don’t think I see myself shifting from that position any time soon or ever.”
Yahaya believes that testing is a waste of time and resources. This posturing is analogous to the position of Trump who said the logical thing to do was to stop testing since more testing was bound to reveal more cases of coronavirus infections. Logical and sensible?
As of February, data released by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) put the number of cases in Kogi state at 5 and the number of Covid-19 deaths at 3, while Kogi’s neighbour to the south, Edo state, had 4,670 confirmed cases and 180 deaths.
Who knows, instead of harassing Edo state citizens to wear masks, perhaps the easier thing to do is for Governor Godwin Obaseki and his deputy to emulate Yahaya, relax in Osadebey House, and proclaim that there is no Covid-19 in Edo state?
Populism has its limits. The case of Donald Trump is still too fresh to be forgotten. But our people say the dog that is doomed to get lost does not heed its master’s whistle.
The cause of President Magufuli’s death was announced by the Vice President to be a “heart condition” known as chronic atrial fibrillation characterised by an abnormal heartbeat.
The announcement followed more than a week of intense speculation that the president was critically ill with Covid-19 — reports that senior government officials had repeatedly denied.
The “Bulldozer” had been missing in action for almost three weeks. He last appeared in public on February 27, and the fervent catholic had missed three Sunday services, sparking concern.
But Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa insisted last week that the president was “healthy and working hard”, without proof. Rather, he blamed the rumours of the president’s ill-health on “hateful” Tanzanians living abroad.
On Monday, police said they had arrested four people on suspicion of spreading rumours on social media that the president was ill.
The prime minister’s reaction is hardly surprising as blame game is common to most African governments.
According to analysts, Magufuli has dealt a crushing blow to democracy in one of Africa’s most stable nations.
One of the first world leaders to convey their condolences on the death of the Tanzanian president was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He tweeted “Sorry to hear” of Magufuli’s death.
The United States State Department expressed condolences, adding: “We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path.”
It is not difficult to interpret these condolences couched in Diplomatese.
No one can deny that Magufuli left positive foot prints on the political and socio-economic sands of Tanzania. He will be remembered for expanding free education, rural electrification, and investing in infrastructure projects such as railways, a hydropower dam set to double electricity output and eliminate power rationing, and the revival of the national airline.
His government passed a number of laws to increase Tanzania’s stake in its mineral resources and demanded millions of dollars in back taxes from foreign mining companies.
However, while many Africans would prefer an action-driven leader like Magufuli, they equally want leaders who govern honestly and a government that respects them and does not conceal information about their president’s state of health.
The President’s vacation and morbid speculations: By Tony Ekata
Like Trump, Magufuli’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is more likely to define his legacy than anything else. He sowed strong doubts on the existence of coronavirus and the efficacy of vaccines, the cost of which may be counted in human lives lost to the pandemic, in Tanzania and beyond.
The ‘evil’ that men do, the sage Shakespeare said, “lives after them; but the good is often interred with their bones.”
African leaders who have ears, including Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who constitutionally takes over the remaining part of Magufuli’s five-year mandate, and makes history as Tanzanian’s first female president, let them hear!
From Random Thoughts: A Collection of Essays and Poems
By Tony Ekata