After spending months denying that COVID-19 is a big issue in Tanzania and promising that God will save the country from the epidemic, Tanzanian president John Magufuli was suddenly pronounced dead. His death only comes weeks after his public disappearance, leading to speculation that he was airlifted to Kenya for urgent medical treatment. More than his denial of the seriousness of COVID, Western media made sure to include references to his attacks on Tanzanian democratic institutions and opposition politicians since coming to power in 2015 in their obituaries of Magufuli, implying that his death provided a chance for Tanzania to reverse its democratic decline.
Magufuli is a politician that I have heard so much about while living in Tanzania from 2015 to 2017. Some of my own understanding about how Tanzanian politics work, and how the local people participate (or not participate) in the democratic process, came from a highly competitive election that saw the ruling CCM, with Magufuli as the candidate, defeat the opposition Chadema. Although CCM, as the party of Tanzania's independence movement, is deeply ingrained in the country's political institutions, the opposition made itself heard and visibly seen down to the very rural villages, casting doubt about Magufuli, even as he won the election, is capable of unifying the country behind him.
Those who stood behind Magufuli characterized him as a guy who can get stuff done. Nicknamed the "bulldozer," he was reputed, in his previous positions in both local and national politics in ministerial positions, of pushing aside bureaucratic obstacles to implement major infrastructural projects, some of which, while benefiting only a few, are visible to all. In a country where the state is often not at all present outside major cities, Magufuli's reputation of not getting bogged down in consultations and consensus building to implement what he sets his mind to is seen as an overwhelmingly positive feature.
Yet, that determination to get things done despite the presence of opposition became a farce when the opposition represented rational thinking on an illness sweeping the globe. Even as neighboring countries increasingly came around to the idea that their youthful population can be hurt by COVID both physically and economically, Magufuli encouraged Tanzanians to continue their denial. And even as the neighbors stepped up campaigns to wear masks and buy vaccines, Magufuli peddled herbal remedies and the power of religion, while undermining the work of the local scientific community.
Of course, Magufuli is not the only national leader in denial of COVID's seriousness. The likes of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in America were just as blatant in their denialism that obstructed the work of local public health authorities. But what sets Tanzania apart from Brazil and America is that there is not as big and influential of an intellectual class who persuade the general public to be skeptical of their political leadership. Even when Magufuli was attacked by the opposition for his supposed ineptitude, not enough voiced concerns about his using the trademark bulldozer style to push aside the country's embattled scientific community.
In this instance, the public's fondness for his no-non-sense, getting-things-done attitude translated into unquestioning support for his insisting on treating COVID as a minor foreign import that the Tanzanian people are strong enough to defeat without medical help. Magufuli gave people confidence and asked for their confidence in him in return, but all he got out of it is not only complete darkness about how extensively COVID has ravaged his country but also his very own mortality that he continued to deny until the very end. To that very end, he refused to let down his bulldozer style in public.
Magufuli's COVID denial shows the dangers of a strongman in a society lacking in pluralism. It is only natural that people seek strong leadership in a time of existential crisis, but for any functional society, leadership needs to be a collective effort, among people who are well-versed in the expertise needed to resolve the issue at hand. People should only consider a leader credible when s/he is willing to listen to the experts and translate their expertise into policies and laws that will ensure the least harm to the largest number of citizens. And when such a leader does not exist at the national level, people should be able to turn to alternatives, whether at the international or local level.
The death of Magufuli is perhaps a time for Tanzanians to reconsider whether they really need a bulldozer in the highest office on the land. But in the short term, it is at the very least an opportunity to think about what their relationships are with their elected politicians, scientists, foreigners, religion, and the media. When people decide to stop putting their presidents on a pedestal and starting treating them who are capable of erring just as any regular person can, they can decide to rely more to think on their own about issues, especially ones of life and death like COVID.
Image Credit: http://www.zorins.tv/news/tanzanian-president-john-magufuli-dies-at-61/