Former Tanzanian President John Pombe Joseph Magufuli died on 18 March ostensibly of COVID-19/Photo: President John Magufuli/Facebook

Tanzania: How Covid-19 denialism proved fatal for President John Magufuli

The death of Tanzanian President John Pombe Joseph Magufuli did not come as a surprise. Shrouded in secrecy since February 27 when the president was last seen in public.

The late president was born in Chato, a remote location around Lake Victoria in 1959. He studied Chemistry and Maths at the University of Dar Es Salaam and worked as a teacher. He was elected to Parliament in 1995 after two unsuccessful attempts.

He served as minister in various ministries before vying for the presidency in 2015 to succeed Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and won. His gentle demure, contradicted his modus operandi, of getting things done not minding whose ox is gored, which earned him the bulldozer tag.

Magufuli was liked and hated in equal measures and often applauded by the ordinary people for his philanthropic gestures and spontaneity in decision making. He is survived by Janet Magufuli, a primary school teacher and two children.

In his reign as country’s fifth president, he detested and viewed opposition politics as a distraction to development and true to his vow, all the prominent opposition members lost in the last October’s elections, giving him an overwhelming majority in Parliament, which pundits suspected was ill-bent to scrap the two-term limit in the constitution to extend Magufuli’s term beyond 2025.

He was fond of making impromptu visits to workplaces and projects, dismissing instantly any government official deemed corrupt or sleeping on the job, forcing his ministers to follow him wherever he went lest they are portrayed in a bad light at public rallies and sacked in their absence.  

On Friday March 12, both Ms Samia Hassan, Tanzanian’s vice president and Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa claimed in different forums that the president was occupied with deskwork when speculation about his probable demise was rife.

Neither State House doctors nor a close family member came out to dispel the swirling rumour about the president’s demise many believe was as a result of the Covid-19 virus.    

Magufuli had in June 2020 declared Tanzania to be free of the coronavirus after three days of prayers and fasting and vowed never to impose any lockdown. And in what appeared as reminiscent of dictatorial legacy of the first president, Julius Nyerere, none, including those in the medical fraternity, dared to contract that position.

Henceforth, doctors classified every corona related death as respiratory or pneumonia as the cause and wearing of the facemask in the presence of the president could brand one a traitor.

Zanzibar’s former vice president, who died on February 12, Hamad Seif, took a bold decision to announce to the public that he was ailing from the Covid-19 virus. Government operatives quickly came out to refute the claims, saying the former VP was only suffering from the normal flu and would soon be up and about. The family appeared refrained from uttering the word corona during his burial.

President Magufuli eulogised the VP without mentioning coronavirus but the following day Chief Secretary John Kijazi died from the so-called respiratory complication. Three days later on February 22 the death of the former Central Bank governor Benno Ndulu was announced. A few days earlier the president had presided over a ceremony in which Ndulu handed over to his successor to proceed on retirement.

It was at this junction that President Magufuli reluctantly acquiesced to the reactivation of preventive protocols abandoned last year to curb the spread of the Covid-19 on condition that Tanzania avoids the use of imported facemasks arguing that they are contaminated by harmful foreign pathogens.

To acknowledge this position government officials avoided being seen with a facemask anywhere lest they are labelled traitors.

Finance Minister Philip Mpango who was recuperating was dragged to the hospital lounge flanked by the hospital’s director and a senior doctor to dispel the rumours that he was suffering from coronavirus. But things took a dramatic turn when the minister who was gasping for air began coughing uncontrollably in the full glare of the press corps.   

Vice President Suluhu Samia was sworn in today as the new president in a ceremony held at State House in Dodoma attended by the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and for the first time, every official had a facemask on.  It remains to be seen how the new president will navigate the politics of the mainland and Parliament led by Magufuli loyalists.

R.I.P President Magufuli. Your unmatched development legacy is irrevocable. 

Micke Ojijo

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