With neighbours tightening their borders and internal criticism growing, President Magufuli’s government finds itself increasingly isolated.
Before the coronavirus reached Tanzania, things were arguably going according to plan for President John Magufuli. Since taking office in November 2015, he had maintained a firm grip on power and shaped the government in his image.
He won hearts by sacking absent officials on the spot and managed to reincarnate popular notions of ujamaa (Tanzanian socialism) and suspicion of mabeberu (imperialists). These sentiments partly protected him from criticism as he banned opposition activities and as many of his critics were killed, abducted or shot at.
Within the ruling CCM, President Magufuli was elevated to demi-god status, with virtually every positive action branded as his own personal achievement. Among Christian and Muslim leaders, many described him as “God sent” and accompanied him in public appearances. According to the government’s own numbers – which were made illegal to question – the economy appeared to be doing well as the president’s “white elephant” mega-projects took shape.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, was not part of the plan.
After Tanzania confirmed its first case in mid-March, Magufuli went silent for about two weeks. When he reappeared at a church, he said the virus cannot survive in the body of Jesus and encouraged worshippers to keep attending religious services.
In subsequent appearances, he announced there were no plans to close the borders. He encouraged Tanzania’s to inhale hot steam to kill the virus. And he questioned whether masks and disinfectant from abroad had been infected. He claimed COVID-19 testing kits were faulty and that they had returned positive results from a goat and a pawpaw.
Since the start of the pandemic, the president has downplayed the threat and refrained from imposing the kinds of lockdown measures being practised in many neighbouring countries.
A cursory glance at Tanzania’s official statistics might suggest this strategy is working. As of 18 May, it had just 509 confirmed cases and 21 deaths. But a closer look reveals the country has only conducted 652 tests. Furthermore, health workers have claimed that despite the figures, hundreds of people have in fact succumbed to the virus, while videos have emerged on social media of mysterious night-time burials.
Pressure from within
It is difficult to say how long Tanzania can maintain this course of action. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the president could start to find himself being pressured from different political angles.
Domestically, Magufuli is unlikely to be troubled by the political opposition, but if reports of deaths keep rising, it is possible that those within his party could start to question his approach. The president does appear to have a firm grip on power within the party for now. Many of his long-time associates chair key wings of the CCM or hold the most influential positions. This faction is believed to be united behind Magufuli.
However, it is not unfeasible that this faith could erode if the death toll, official or unofficial, continues to climb. This will especially be the case the more that the virus threatens those close to members of this group. Three CCM legislators, including Justice Minister Augustine Mahiga, have already died recently of unknown causes. Even the president’s closest allies know that no one is immune from COVID-19 no matter how powerful.
The other faction of the CCM, which is more sceptical of Magufuli and tends to have deeper roots in the party, may already be tiring of the president’s approach.
Pressure from the outside
Another source of pressure on Magufuli could come internationally. Like all countries, Tanzania relies heavily on trade and cooperation with its neighbours. Many of these countries, however, appear worried at Tanzania’s approach.
On 13 May, Zambia closed the Tunduma-Nakonde border with Tanzania after the Zambian district of Nakonde recorded 76 new COVID-19 cases in one day; it has since re-opened with added restrictions. On 16 May, Kenya shut its borders with Tanzania, after many of its new recorded cases were of truck drivers from across the border. Meanwhile, Uganda and Rwanda have both introduced extra precautionary measures for those transporting goods from Tanzania.
President Magufuli was absent from an online summit of East African leaders on 12 May. And even Raila Odinga, Kenya’s opposition leader, has publicly criticised the approach taken by his long-time friend.
Beyond its neighbours, Tanzania’s relationship with other international partners – many of which were already on shaky ground – have been dealt a blow too. The fact that the International Monetary Fund has disbursed over $1.3 billion to Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda to help them address the impact of the pandemic, but not done the same for Tanzania, speaks volumes.
Finally, President Magufuli’s approach could lead to growing divides within the union. In contrast to the mainland, the island of Zanzibar has so far been relatively transparent in its handling of COVID-19. If Zanzibar feels it has to follow Tanzania’s neighbours in imposing tighter border controls from the mainland, this could provide another source of pressure on Magufuli’s current approach.
Through nearly five years in office, the president has consolidated his powerbase and tightened his grip. But COVID-19 was not part of the plan. The pandemic has created new dynamics, and the more the disease – and the response to it – threatens the interests and lives of his allies, supporters and partners, the more President Magufuli could see his grip start to loosen.