John Pombe Magufuli, over the first years of his first term, was everything Kenya desired but didn’t have. A genuine and tough stance against corruption. A deep commitment to public service. Chapa kazi tu. There was no time for laxity. He espoused the belief and practiced servant leadership, placed the issues of the average Tanzanian at the center of government policy. He was too good to be true. Building a firm foundation for the Tanzanian economy to take off.
Telling China off with its colonial structuring of infrastructure loans. Tanzanians, he insisted, must get value for money. I used BRT in Dar es Salaam, and the efficiency, damn! I was eaten inside by envy. Why didn’t we have this in Nairobi? Kenya has the money. Everything screamed ‘leadership’. His zealous pursuit of accountability ensured all national projects were completed on time and within budget. He was ruthless with cartels and cut off government waste and grandiose. He chided lazy government officials in public, called them out by name, ordered service to be given instantly by the chief of police to an old lady who came complaining at one of his rallies. He declared, often, that he was here for the working class, and in many ways, he showed how he meant it.
Things Kenya can only dream of.
That was before dictatorial tendencies began emerging. It started with his hard stance on women’s rights; how he decreed that teenage schoolgirls should not be allowed back into the classrooms, but instead be married off. Then the curtailing media freedom. Tanzanians lost the ability to criticize their President. Media stations were shut down. Journalists jailed. Musicians forced to sing inane praises or face the risk of censorship – or (as was in the case of the Wasafi Brothers), seek exile in Nairobi. In the run-up to his re-election, it became blatant. Opposition figures were arrested and jailed without trial. Most were disappeared by the state. The extremes of this was that Nairobi became the path through which opposition figures seeking exile in Europe passed, or seeking treatment for gun wounds from unsuccessful assassinations.
And then COVID-19 happened and Magufuli, a man with a Ph.D. in Chemistry, took the most populist, religious fundamentalist, and pseudoscientific approach to managing the pandemic. Some of us, who had over the years devalued accusations of dictatorship, openly and harshly criticized Magufuli and Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19, a strategy that was consistently exposing East Africa to the possibility of a long-term confrontation with the virus. The observations of mishaps, stupid tests on pawpaw and goats, ludicrous anti-vaccine statements, and open denial are way too many on this wall.
At the beginning of lockdown in Kenya, Magufuli was quick to scoff at us. Urged Tanzanians to go back to the fields, pray to God for a hearty harvest and sell produce more exorbitantly to Kenyans. It was campaign season, and the man was seeking reelection for a second term, and the Swahili-speaking nation gobbled up his rhetoric like a ripe mango. Green with envy, we watched Tanzania enjoy the December holidays with parties, concerts and life going on as usual. For a moment there, fatigued from the prolonged and brutal curfew restriction, we wondered if there was a truth in Magufuli’s logic.
Where were their numbers? The overcrowded hospitals? Perhaps God must have answered their prayers, who knows? After all, he works in mysterious ways.
When Pierre Nkurunziza, with his God-will-protect-Burundi sloganeering, was felled by COVID-19, we joked how Magufuli would soon be on the line. Thousands of Tanzanians had actually died, but their deaths recorded as pneumonia, by a public health system forced to obey the dictatorial and misinformed COVID-19 diktats of Magufuli.
Recently Magufuli began softening his stance, in response to high-profile deaths in his government, Corona was getting too close, eating away his inner circle. Unfortunately, the realization came too late. There is that one photo of Magufuli and three of his inner circle that went around the interwebs. Those three had long died from COVID-like complications. And who can forget the viral video of one of his ministers holding a press conference with one foot already in the grave? Wheezing, coughing, the short belabored gasps of air in between his speech.
It is true that Magufuli has suffered heart problems for a long time. Magufuli had a pacemaker. He was in that group of people who were most at risk. A person who had underlying health issues but decided to trade his own health for fundamentalist religious beliefs, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience. So when his death was confirmed yesterday, we did not know how to receive it as a tragedy, an irony, a comeuppance…or mere poetic justice.
How Tanzania has struggled over the last two weeks to manage information about his dying and death from COVID-19 shows you just how much he was feared. May those who were arrested for spreading “false rumors” about his health be released. May exiled political leaders in exile come back to their country. People were jailed for sharing information on coronavirus.
It is now time for Tanzania to do the necessary and put in place necessary health interventions to protect themselves and protect East Africans from emerging virulent strains of coronavirus. Rebuild healthcare capacity and reinstate disease screening, testing, diagnosis, and surveillance. The presence of many vaccines is a big opportunity that Tanzania should grab. Sub-Saharan Africa already suffers from a heavy disease burden, and we should be careful not to let COVID-19 become endemic hereafter the developed world has eliminated it from their borders. No need to reinvent the wheel with moshi aromatherapy.
All is not lost. Kagame, despite his own iron hand, has shown us how pandemics should be managed in modern Africa. We no longer have to look for the best examples in Europe and America. Rwanda has been ticking all the right boxes, consistently.
Magufuli is a sad lesson of the illusion of invulnerability and indestructibility that newly-minted dictators revere. East Africa’s most educated and most promising leader has died from COVID-19 holding the title of Africa’s most prominent COVID-19 denier and anti-vaxxer.
COVID-19 is real. Viruses don’t climb trees like Zaccheaus to listen to political propaganda, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. No one knows their day but let’s put on masks and if you are next online for the vaccine shot, go for it to protect yourself, your family and others.
Meanwhile, there will be seven days of national mourning in Kenya, and flags will be flown at half-mast throughout the country and diplomatic missions abroad, from today until the sunset of the day of Magufuli’s funeral.