Missing leader John Magufuli in ‘virus-free’ nation declared dead

By Ben Graham

The president of a nation that had supposedly beaten COVID mysteriously vanished last month, now he has been declared dead.

The Tanzanian President John Magufuli — who vanished from the public eye for 18 days — has died from a heart condition, his vice president said in an address on state television.

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that today on the 17th of March, 2021 at 6 pm we lost our brave leader, the President of the Republic of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli, said vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan.

His death comes after a disturbing string of high-profile deaths and illnesses attributed to “respiratory problems” or “pneumonia” in recent weeks and accusations that the nation is covering up a coronavirus disaster.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic causing untold misery across the world for the past year, Tanzania has supposedly not had a single case since May 2020.

Instead of masks, lockdowns and social distancing, the East African nation opted to rely on the power of prayer, traditional healing techniques like steam inhalation, and natural “cures” such as ginger and lemonade.

And, according to the government’s official data, it was working.

While neighbouring nations have been ravaged, Tanzania – with a population of around 60 million – has claimed to have only had 509 virus cases and just 21 deaths.

President Magufuli, nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his authoritarian leadership, hadn’t been seen in public for 18 days, sparking rumours that he was seriously ill with COVID-19 – or dead.

His government tried to contain the rumours by arresting people.

Mr Magufuli, 61, last appeared in public on February 27. He missed three Sunday church services, where the devout Catholic would often address the congregation.

Just days before the president’s last appearance, finance minister Philip Mpango appeared coughing and gasping at a press conference outside a hospital, while attempting to dispel rumours he had died of COVID-19.

The president had for months insisted the virus no longer existed in Tanzania. He refused to wear a face-mask or order lockdown measures.

Then the country stopped releasing COVID case data in April 2020.

But a week before he was last seen, Mr Magufuli conceded the virus was still circulating, after the vice-president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of COVID-19.

Last Tuesday, main opposition leader Tundu Lissu, exiled in Belgium, and others began questioning Mr Magufuli’s absence, citing sources that he was gravely ill from the virus, exacerbated by underlying health conditions.

On Monday, Mr Lissu said on Twitter that his intelligence sources “say he’s on life support with COVID and paralysed on one side and from the waist down after a stroke. Tell the people the truth”.

Among the theories in circulation is that Mr Magufuli is severely ill in a hospital in Kenya or India, while another suggests he never left Tanzania at all.

Kenyan media have reported the presence of “an African leader” in a Nairobi hospital in clear reference to Mr Magufuli, although government officials deny he is there.

India’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Professor Nic Cheeseman, of Birmingham University, said it was “remarkable” that the government has kept Mr Magufuli’s whereabouts under wraps “in the modern world of the internet and citizen reporting and social media”.

“But Tanzania isn’t living in that modern world. The … level of media censorship means Tanzania is not in that context.”

The Tanzanian government has said very little, other than to threaten those spreading rumours with jail time.

So far police have announced the arrest of one person in Dar es Salaam and two in the northern Kilimanjaro region for spreading rumours.

And analysts said the silence was telling.

“I think whatever happens … it is clearly true the regime is trying to buy time,” Prof Cheeseman said.

“And it only really makes sense that the regime is trying to buy time if the president is very ill, incapacitated, or dead.”

A devout Catholic who has a PhD in chemistry, Mr Magufuli had previously termed coronavirus a “devil” that could be beaten with God’s help.

Last year, his coronavirus response was to ask citizens to turn to prayer, with the government even setting aside days to do so, as well as using homegrown cures.

One such remedy was inhaling the steam of boiled neem leaves, known as “mwarubaini” – meaning “40 cures”.

Last month, Mr Magufuli finally admitted Tanzania has a coronavirus problem, revealing some of his aides and family members had contracted COVID-19 but recovered, as well as giving some lukewarm support for the wearing of masks.

“Let us all depend on God as we also take other preventive measures. I put God first and that is why I do not wear a mask,” he said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tanzanian physician Frank Minja said authorities have been speaking about COVID-19 “in very general terms” and with euphemisms, which he described as problematic.

“[Health authorities would say,] ‘You have a viral pneumonia, you have very severe pneumonia, you have difficulty breathing’; we’re talking about inventing general terms,” Dr Minja said.

“We can’t just talk about infectious diseases in general. Yes, they have given advice in general, but we have to alert people that we have three methods that actually work against COVID-19: Masks, washing your hands and avoiding large crowds.”

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