It all started with Elizabeth Ane. President John Pombe Magufuli explained that he suspected that the number of COVID-19 cases in Tanzania was artificially inflated. Under his leadership, test pads were applied to non-human samples, including goats, sheep, papaya trees, quail, and oil. The swabs were tubed and given human pseudonyms, including Elizabeth Ane. They were sent, thus disguised, to the national laboratory to be tested for COVID-19.
In one live tv show, Magufuli announced the results: COVID-19 false positives. He alleged that this revealed an image of foreign conspiracy and domestic collusion:
Some workers may have been put on the payroll of the imperialists.
In a way reminiscent of President Donald Trump, he insinuated that the World Health Organization, at least by omission, was responsible. He also announced good news; Madagascar had discovered a herbal medicine for COVID-19. In one apparent celebration of the national airline, a plane was sent to collect the doses.
Magufuli's response to COVID-19 did not start – or end – with this test test. He introduced preventive measures for COVID-19 late and partially, which WHO has suggested may have exacerbated the spread of the virus. he declared that COVID-19 was a "devil" (shetani) who "cannot live in the body of Christ. He will burn instantly".
Later he asked Tanzanians to defeat the devil in the coronavirus through prayer, announced 3 days of national prayers against COVID-19 and excluded churches and mosques from foreclosure measures.
Magufuli had very different plans for 2020. General elections are scheduled for October, the first since he was elected president five years ago.
Prepare for victory
During his five years in power, Magufuli declared and waged two "wars": one against corruption, and another against, in his words, the imperialists (mabeberu). He said these struggles were vital to advancing the industrial transformation of Tanzania. He invoked this project to justify sudden authoritarian turn.
A strong electoral victory would have affirmed the Magufuli project.
The question of whether Magufuli would win a larger share of the vote in free and fair elections is disputed. Many believe that Magufuli's agenda generalized galvanized support. In 2016, his the approval rate was 96%. However, in 2018, fell to 55%. In fact, in Tanzania survey respondents regularly overstate support for the ruling party and under-report support for the opposition. This questions Magufuli's popularity.
But the election was by no means intended to be fair. Five years of oppression have existentially threatened opposition. The closure of the political space has silent reviews. In last year's local elections, opposition candidates were mass disqualified. As a result, the opposition refused to participate.
Therefore, regardless of Magufuli's popularity or unpopularity, his electoral prospects seemed sunny. It was boasted to increase the voting share of his party. This would have stopped two electoral cycles – 2010 and 2015 – of popular decline.
In sum, victory was on the horizon, and as the saying goes, history is written by the victors. He had reason to hope that his agenda would be credited with the triumph, his controversial journey as president would be justified and his story would prevail.
Instead, 2020 plunges Magufuli into the worst light. His COVID-19 response highlights other negative aspects of the President and his program. Instead of validating his vision, he puts forward critical and dissenting perspectives.
Such a prospect, highly praised by the opposition, is of Magufuli as a tyrant. In authoritarian Tanzania, they say, dissent is crushed and the media is censored. Information is tightly controlled by the state.
Leader of the Opposition Zitto Kabwe argues that this thwarts development. Civil activist Aidan Eyakuze supports that data confidentiality makes it more difficult to correct errors by verifying the facts.
COVID-19 brought a terrible immediacy to these assertions. The very real possibility appeared that the state was covering – or at least not documenting – the extent of deaths from COVID-19. Rumors of unreported cases abound; night burial video footage circulate. The activists who disputed official coverage have been arrested.
Another line of attack against Magufuli is that he is a fanatic. He ostensibly put his industrialization program above all. He asked people to give up a better life today for a better life tomorrow. This urgency was applauded. But COVID-19 makes this dedication seem fanatic. Leader of the Opposition Freeman Mbowe alleged that Magufuli prefers sacrifice its citizens that the economy and its flagship economic projects.
Above all, Magufuli's response to COVID-19 will lend credence to others' view that it is reckless. Others have described Magufuli as paranoid or a "little dictator". His nickname "The bulldozer"originally meant construction and determination; it was reinterpreted as destructive.
But Magufuli's COVID-19 response highlights another, often overlooked perspective: the president as a politician and rhetorician. His apparently spontaneous behavior is often strategic. His "spontaneous" remarks are strategic. Although her response to COVID-19 may seem disturbing, it also came straight out of her normal play book.
When he waged an "economic war", the pretext was the alleged discovery of years of underreporting mineral exports by foreign mining companies. The exposure of fraudulent COVID-19 test kits approved by the WHO operates according to the same script.
The dismissal of eminently qualified The director of the National Laboratory, Nyambura Moremi, also sounds like a return to old tactics. Magufuli did lay off public officials a signature stroke. He displayed decisive action and found scapegoats who left the president and the party unblemished.
Its response also brings COVID-19 into a nationalist sphere which will cloud future debate. If the international plot inflates the test results, those who report higher rates of infection or death would be collaborators. Those who dispute the official results would be seditious. It includes COVID-19 in a nationalist struggle.
Meanwhile, the public press is Magufuli shower of praise in a reaffirmation of his favorite narrative.
The jury is still absent
Which of these interpretations of President Magufuli will prevail remains unclear. He can successfully defame his critics and suppress alternative information. However, in the context of this political struggle, the dissemination of COVID-19 will continue. The subordination of COVID-19 to regime policy is a tragedy in the making.
This tragedy is accompanied by another: Magufuli's projects raise commendable causes, but also defile them. Corruption is indeed widespread. Foreign companies are indeed exploitative. Not all aid is sent with the best of intentions. Industrialization is a laudable goal.
Tanzania should aspire to a better life for its citizens. These causes are laudable and it is good that Magufuli is pursuing them. But his behavior on COVID-19 and democracy tarnishes them by association.