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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.