Tanzania president downplays Covid-19 ahead of elections

TANZANIA’S maverick president, John Magufuli, has used his strong personality to cow corrupt civil servants and force foreign mining companies to pay millions of dollars in outstanding tax. The coronavirus may be less responsive.

Last week, he became the first African leader to declare victory over the virus, even though health data has not been released for more than a month. He has criticised the national laboratory for exaggerating the number of infections, dismissed health experts and discouraged the wearing of masks, all the while saying God will protect Tanzania. Restrictions on social gatherings such as weddings will be lifted from June 29, when schools can reopen.

But the president’s optimism is belied by reports of deaths and night-time burials by health officials wearing personal protective equipment. Dozens of Tanzanian truck drivers who had to undergo screening at border posts have tested positive. The US embassy warned in May that the risk of contracting the virus in the main city, Dar es Salaam, was ‘extremely high’ and that hospitals were overwhelmed.

Tanzania’s approach to the pandemic ‘has caused panic and tension within the East African community,’ Hanningtone Amol, CEO of the East African Law Society, said from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. ‘The truth is, cemeteries are busy across Tanzania.’

Neighbours are worried. Kenya has shut the border to all but cargo, Zambia temporarily did the same and Rwanda is insisting on tests before entry. Uganda is ‘concerned’ about the rise in cases in Tanzania, Spellanza Muhenda Baguma, vice-chair of the parliamentary committee on health, said in a June 4 interview. Magufuli skipped two recent summits where he would have met with regional heads of state.

Intimidation and bravado

‘President Magufuli has decided to please the crowd by not locking down the country and allowing people to continue to scratch out a living,’ said Fatma Karume, a lawyer and former president of the Tanganyika Law Society. ‘It’s a high-risk game.’

Nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’ for his no-nonsense approach when he was minister of works, Magufuli has made intimidation and bravado a feature of his presidency since assuming office in 2015. His campaign to fight graft — he often fired people while cameras were rolling — earned him widespread praise and elevated his authority within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.

Crackdowns on the media and those who poke fun at the government mean that criticism of how Magufuli is handling the outbreak is mostly restricted to social media. Official information is limited and tightly controlled. At least 13 journalists, students and politicians have been detained since March 23 for distributing information about the virus, Tanzania’s Legal and Human Rights Centre said.

When the health ministry stopped releasing data, the country had 480 cases and 16 deaths. That compares to almost 4,000 cases and more than 100 deaths in neighbouring Kenya as of Tuesday.

Last week, Tanzania’s parliament passed a resolution to praise Magufuli for ‘exemplary leadership’ in handling the pandemic. CCM legislator Ally Kessy urged fellow parliamentarians to abolish presidential term limits and allow the 60-year-old to rule indefinitely, saying he was irreplaceable.

‘Divine intervention’

Still, residents are not convinced the authorities have the disease under control.

‘I think we still have a lot of coronavirus infections out there, despite the government saying we now have very few cases,’ said Hamisi Thabiti, a mechanic in Dar es Salaam. ‘That’s why I’m still taking precautions and take a lemon and ginger drink every day to boost my immunity.’

Infections are down and some hospitals in Dar es Salaam are empty, said government spokesperson Hassan Abbasi. That success is due to measures the state has taken ‘but also our firm belief in divine intervention, that’s why churches and mosques were open throughout,’ he said by text message.

Magufuli was one of few African leaders to refuse a lockdown or curfew, saying the country could not afford it. His announcement this month that the outbreak has been defeated paves the way for campaigning for presidential and parliamentary elections in October.

The vote is likely to take place with little foreign attention as the international community is distracted by the crisis, and with limited opposition — one senior leader was found guilty of sedition in May and another is launching his campaign from self-imposed exile in Europe.

‘The president doesn’t want to postpone his inevitable election victory,’ Amol said. ‘We are staring at the bigger picture of someone preparing for the elections without observers.’


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