John Magufuli, Tanzania’s COVID-Denying President, Dies
Nolan Quinn is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program.
President John Magufuli's death at sixty-one years of age followed a familiar pattern among Africa’s putative strongmen: denials that he was sick followed by secrecy as to the circumstances of his dying and where it happened. Magufuli, like other African heads of state, apparently sought treatment outside his own country, rumor had it either in Kenya or India—perhaps both. Vice President Samia Suluhu, announcing the president’s death yesterday, said the president died from a heart condition, and that he had been treated at two different hospitals in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital. However, in social and traditional media both in East Africa and elsewhere, rumors that the president had contracted COVID-19 had been circulating for more than a week. The mystery surrounding the true nature of his death could well remain unresolved.
Yet if, as seems likely, Magufuli has died from COVID-19, the story of his demise would prove ironic. A conservative Roman Catholic—yet influenced in his outspokenness by a Nigerian Pentecostal televangelist—the president denied the presence of the disease in Tanzania, having declared victory over the novel coronavirus thanks to the power of prayer. Meanwhile, escalating numbers of senior officials and clergy have been dying of "respiratory disease." Prior to Magufuli’s death, the Catholic Church in Tanzania had become the most high-profile institution willing to contradict the narrative spun by its most high-profile adherent.
Even after Magufuli had fallen ill—the vice-president announced he was initially admitted to the hospital on March 6—the government arrested individuals for spreading “false information” about the president’s health. Such tools of power, hardly considered legitimate in the decades preceding Magufuli, were used with increasing regularity as the president moved Tanzania in an authoritarian direction. Intimidation of opposition leaders and the media became commonplace.
Suluhu, who became Tanzania’s first-ever female vice president in 2015, is now legally considered the acting president of Tanzania. A swearing-in date has not been announced for her to formally take office; the constitution states that she is to serve the remainder of Magufuli’s five-year term, which began after he was re-elected in October in elections marred by violence and fraud. One member of parliament who worked closely with Suluhu called her “the most underrated politician in Tanzania,” but reports have surfaced that the acting president does not command support across the various factions of the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the ever-fractious ruling party. While it appears unlikely that the constitutionally outlined succession plan will be contravened, especially given the military’s weak political influence, the circumstances of Suluhu’s rise to power—coupled with her gender in a nation that retains deeply patriarchal beliefs—could handicap her political ambitions.
The new president will have several pressing issues to address. Tanzania is still in the grips of what appears to be its biggest wave yet of COVID-19. Anecdotes from those in Tanzania—one of few sources of information on the disease’s prevalence in Tanzania at present—suggest case numbers are falling, but prominent figures continue to become sick with COVID-like symptoms. The government will come under renewed pressure from international health agencies to begin reporting data and accept assistance, such as vaccines, from abroad. And while Tanzania has weathered the COVID-related economic shock better than many other countries, growth has nonetheless been below potential, and will remain so if the government does not begin to recommend science-based public health practices.
At the southern border, a brutal jihadi insurgency in Mozambique occasionally spills over into Tanzania. Under Magufuli, bilateral relations with Tanzania’s southern neighbor were occasionally strained, but cooperation between the two had been improving. Regardless, the trajectory of violence suggests the insurgents will prove a lasting headache for the incoming government and potentially even further into the future.
Most unpredictable is the path the new government will take with regard to respect for political freedoms. While Tanzania has never been considered fully democratic, it was, prior to Magufuli, known for its political stability, respect for minorities, and limits on power. It would seem unlikely that Suluhu, a soft-spoken former activist, shares Magufuli’s authoritarian tilt. Indeed, many Swahili-speaking users on Twitter and the Tanzania-based message board JamiiForums have interpreted her rise as heralding an easing of restrictions on speech, as has opposition leader Tundu Lissu. But the degree to which intolerance of criticism has become institutionalized within CCM is unclear and, until more time passes, unknowable. The assessment of Magufuli’s reign therefore remains a work in progress: was it a deviation from the mean, or merely the beginning of a darker era in Tanzania’s politics?
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.