On 16 June Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, and leader of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), dissolved parliament ahead of October elections, as required by the constitution, just a week after he declared the country “coronavirus-free” thanks to citizens’ prayers. This followed widespread concern since Tanzania stopped updating information about its cases in April, and in May rebuked the local US Embassy for issuing an advisory warning of “exponential growth” in Covid-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals.
Criticism of government’s opacity on Covid-19 has also been vocal among Tanzania’s opposition, with Chadema Chairperson, Freeman Mbowe, hospitalised after a violent attack on 8 June. Mbowe has repeatedly accused government of covering up the scale of Tanzania’s coronavirus outbreak and the party claims the attack was politically motivated. The European Union (EU) denounced the assault as an “attack against democracy”, while the US and British embassies echoed concern.
The attack came just a day after Chadema Member of Parliament (MP) Tundu Lissu announced he would run against Magufuli in the presidential election in October. Lissu lives in Belgium, where he was treated after being shot several times at his home in Tanzania in 2017.
While Magufuli has promised a “free and fair” election, opposition claims of a climate of fear and violence appear to have merit, with the incumbent President’s tenure slammed by various rights groups. Magufuli is alleged to have crushed dissent, jailed critics and passed draconian laws that have weakened freedoms in Tanzania, once optimistically seen as an emerging democratic hope. Chadema says police have broken up party meetings, and that its activists have been kidnapped and beaten. Mbowe and several other opposition MPs were briefly jailed in March over a banned protest against Magufuli.
With opposition leaders clearly not free to express critique openly without fear of reprisal, media freedoms remain similarly constrained with little information forthcoming, even for those willing to take the chance of reporting anti-government news.
With schools in Tanzania set to reopen on 29 June amid Magufuli’s insistence that the threat of coronavirus has diminished, Tanzania is one of the few countries in Africa that has not taken extensive measures against the virus despite three MPs dying of “unknown causes” in May as parliament continued as usual. The virtual information vacuum in so far as Covid-19 data is concerned makes it difficult to disrupt the government narrative that God has “saved” the country from the virus. Magufuli says the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals is declining, but with no data on infection rates for many weeks, common sense dictates that Magufuli’s downplaying of the risk of the pandemic be questioned. With even doctors and healthcare professionals fearful of speaking out, longstanding and repressive laws against freedom of expression and the press are clearly getting in the way of the truth about Tanzania’s Covid-19 status.
Pressure from within the region could have some impact, with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention urging Tanzania to release its latest data. The last figures, published on 29 April, reported 480 cases and 21 deaths (its island territory Zanzibar since added 29 more cases in May). Tanzania’s neighbours have good cause to be worried, with highly porous borders compounding transmission risks. These routes are heavily used for transporting goods across the region and it is feared that truck drivers and other travellers are spreading the virus. Testing is being carried out on people travelling out of Tanzania and into Kenya, Zambia and Uganda, with some sent back if positive. A particular concern is Zambia’s Nakonde district, just south of the border with Tanzania, which has by far the most cases in Zambia, and which is home to a major trading route from Tanzania’s ports into Zambia. In May Kenya say that 29 people who had recently travelled to Tanzania tested positive, while at Ugandan border testing points, at least 15 Tanzanian truck drivers have tested positive.
Tanzania, however, has consistently been more concerned about the economic impact of a lockdown and its effect on its vital tourism industry and has left its borders open, citing its belief in the integration of regional economies and a desire not to destroy neighbouring economies. Magufuli seems confident things are going well – Tanzania is lifting quarantine requirements for tourists and claims some airline operators are fully booked until August, with tourists who want to visit Tanzania. The veracity of these claims is highly fluid, with few likely to risk travel to a country with unknown Covid-19 data.
With Magufuli rationalising that people would visit Tanzania because they know the truth about Covid-19 and because Tanzania was a “sweet place” to visit, many might be less enthused and Tanzania will not escape the economic fallout that easily. The World Bank’s 14th Tanzania Economic Update (TEU) forecasts economic growth will slow to 2.5% in 2020, from the 6.9% government reported in 2019, while recognising significant uncertainty as the pandemic continues to unfold. This assessment also assumes authorities take additional health and economic policy measures to mitigate negative impacts.
In this context, Magufuli may struggle to sustain the denialism that has underpinned Tanzania’s Covid-19 strategy to date, with regional leaders increasingly noting his radio silence despite the fact that he is currently the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). His close friend, former Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, has hinted that he has not been talking to other leaders in the region, while South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa recently called a SADC meeting, after reportedly also being unable to reach him. This will be disturbing the eight countries that share borders with Tanzania.
Compounding the Covid-19 threat, the growing terrorist insurgency in northern Mozambique has shown various indications of cross-border implications with both recruitment and related organised crime activities showing elements of Tanzanian activity. Here again, Magufuli’s current reticence to interact with his regional peers will create yet another fault line for the jihadists to exploit.
With his leadership threatening the lives of Tanzanians, democratic freedoms, and the region’s Covid-19 containment efforts, countries in the regions might start running out of patience with Magufuli soon. In the short term, their only option might be to follow Zambia’s example and close their shared borders, especially with Magufuli often ridiculing the strict measures neighbouring countries have imposed to fight the pandemic.
For now, however, Magufuli shows no sign of backing down and the continued crackdown on media and civil and political freedoms means that the information bubble is unlikely to burst soon.