John Magufuli, the Bolsonaro of Africa


Controversial and Authoritarian Tanzanian Leader Spearheads Denial of Pandemic in Africa and Urges Citizens to Keep Working

A handful of political leaders in the world, with Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro at the helm, denied the impact of the coronavirus and resisted taking measures, although as their countries were affected they nuanced their speech and actions. In Africa, the figure of John Magufuli emerges, the controversial president of Tanzania, who scarcely gives information on positive and deceased cases, appeals to God and herbal baths to combat the disease, resists any measure of confinement and, a few days ago, He assured that he had sent samples of a papaya and a goat to be analyzed and that they tested positive, in a new attempt to cast doubt on the covid-19 and its true impact.

When John Magufuli, 60, was nominated for the 2015 elections in Tanzania, an East African country of 55 million, many were surprised. The professor of mathematics who received his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Dar es Salaam and who had become the minister of public works did not rub shoulders with the upper echelons of the government party. Work, work and work. That was the premise of this fervent Catholic who made a name for himself as incorruptible and earned the nickname of Tingatinga, a bulldozer in Swahili, while filling his country with roads and other infrastructure.

The first day in office, Magufuli already made it clear that he was not going to be a regular president: he appeared by surprise at the Ministry of Finance to check that everyone was at his job. It has made the flag of the fight against absenteeism, corruption and waste of public money. It banned overseas travel by senior government officials that were not duly justified and turned the annual Independence celebration into a national cleansing day. His photo picking up trash with his own hands outside the presidential palace, managed as a marketing strategy, went around the world.

However, the shadows of authoritarian drift soon appeared. The Bulldozer detests criticism and his regime, by action or omission, became the scourge of every dissident voice and of the free press. “Opposition deputies considered to be critical of the regime have been the target of acts of harassment and intimidation and some have been arrested (…). Press freedom has deteriorated markedly, ”says the latest Amnesty International report. Three newspapers, six television channels and 21 radio stations have been closed by decree and political leaders arrested and tried for a crime of hate speech. Journalist Azory Gwanda went missing in 2017 while investigating a series of murders in his community, and an opposition leader was shot without a conclusive investigation.

Now the coronavirus crisis has put Tanzania in the peephole of the world. After assuring that the figures in his country were not real and accusing them of “imperialist sabotage”, the president has ordered that no daily data be provided to prevent fear from spreading. As of Monday, Tanzania has declared 509 cases and 18 deaths, but the last update is from five days ago. At the same time, the increased ability to test on the African continent and the spread of the pandemic have raised positives across Africa to some 62,000, 20,000 in the past ten days, and more than 2,000 deaths.

After asking Tanzanians to pray to fight the virus because the disease “cannot survive in the body of Christ,” Magufuli has decided to take action. In late April, he sent samples of goats, sheep, papayas, car oil, a rabbit and a bird called kware to the laboratory responsible for testing for coronavirus in Tanzania, assuring that they were people with symptoms. “The results of the papaya were positive, those of the kware and the goat also (…) Does that mean that all papayas and goats must be isolated? Someone is messing around. I advise Tanzanians not to worry, the flu has always been there and this is just one more step, ”assured the president.

A day later, the director and the head of quality control at the laboratory were dismissed at the same time as an investigation was opened. Subsequently, the World Health Organization (WHO) denied that the tests were failing, while John Nkengasong, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Africa, said that the tests used in Tanzania are the same than for the rest of the continent and he doubted the Magufuli version.

Since the first coronavirus case appeared in Tanzania on March 17, the government has resisted taking drastic measures. Colleges and universities have closed, but shops, markets, mosques, and churches are still open, and transportation is working normally. The president himself encourages citizens to continue working, although adopting the personal protection measures set by the Government. Many citizens try to stay at home, but most live daily and have to go out and find their daily sustenance. In the next few days, a controversial sagebrush-based botanical herbal tea, called Covid-Organics, created by a Malagasy research center that has already been distributed to a dozen countries, is scheduled to start commercializing.

The opposition accuses Magufuli of denying the evidence. In a televised interview, Freeman Mbowe, leader of the main opposition group Chadema, was blunt: “We see people dying and their burials are supervised by the Government under strict measures, but they do not inform us if those people died from the coronavirus. We need transparency and truth. ” This party has asked its deputies not to go to Parliament after the death of three congressmen within 11 days. “Unfortunately, we continue to learn of the death of deputies and other Tanzanians by COVID-19,” Mbowe said in a statement after the sudden death of the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Augustine Mahiga, 74, without further explanation from the government about the cause of death.

John Magufuli knows that his management of the coronavirus crisis will be tried in the upcoming presidential elections in October. If cases continue to rise, there is still time to turn its policies around, although many experts believe it has nothing to fear. “There are analysts who believe that the robust Tanzanian economy, driven by huge government spending on infrastructure and the export of minerals, will help Magufuli win again. In addition, they remember that the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi has never lost, ”says Peter Fabricius, a member of the Institute for Security Studies in his latest article on Tanzania.

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