Where is Tanzania's President John Magufuli? Tuesday marks 17 days since the 61-year-old has been seen in public, and despite a clamor of rumors of ill-health, the Tanzanian authorities have yet to provide clear answers as to his whereabouts. The mere question is now leading to arrests, as the government seeks to contain the rumors. And analysts say the silence is telling.
"I think whatever happens ... it is clearly true the regime is trying to buy time," said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. "And it only really makes sense that the regime is trying to buy time if the president is very ill, incapacitated, or dead."
Magufuli last appeared in public on Feb. 27, and the fervent Catholic has missed three Sunday services, where he would often address the congregation. Just days before, Finance Minister Philip Mpango appeared coughing and gasping at a press conference outside a hospital, to dispel rumors he had died of COVID-19.
Magufuli's absence comes amid a string of high-profile deaths and illnesses attributed to "respiratory problems" or "pneumonia." Magufuli had for months insisted the virus no longer existed in Tanzania, and had been fended off by prayer. He refused to wear a face mask or take lockdown measures.
The country stopped releasing case data in April 2020. But a week before he was last seen, 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 Magufuli's absence, citing sources that he was gravely ill from COVID-19, exacerbated by underlying health conditions.
On Monday, Lissu said on Twitter that his intelligence sources "say he's on life support with COVID and paralyzed on one side and from the waist down after a stroke. Tell the people the truth!" Among the theories in circulation is that 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 a clear reference to Magufuli, although government officials deny he is present. India's foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. Cheeseman said it was "remarkable" that the government has kept 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 rumors with jail time.
On Friday, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said Magufuli was "strong and working as usual." On Monday, vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan dropped a possible hint the president is ill, without naming him.
"Our country is now full of rumors from outside but that should be ignored ... It's quite normal for a person to contract flu, fever or any other disease," she said. "If there's need for us to remain united, the time is now."
Zitto Kabwe, the leader of opposition party ACT-Wazalendo, said the government was merely giving room for panic. "We know for sure that the president is ill but we are surprised by the deepening silence about the matter," he said in a statement Tuesday.
"We need to know who is currently heading the government through which constitutional powers."
Meanwhile, Tanzanians say they want to see their leader in person. "I believe something is happening but the authorities are hiding," said Muhsin, a resident of the financial capital Dar es Salaam. "I will be comfortable if I see the president himself." Clothes vendor Deborah said there was "unnecessary secrecy." "If our beloved president is really ill, they should tell us the truth so that we put him in our prayers," she said.
Magufuli came to power in 2015 as a no-nonsense, corruption-busting president nicknamed the "Bulldozer," and was reelected in a disputed poll last year. However, he has been accused by rights groups and of stifling democracy and cracking down on the media. As a result, the country's journalists are too afraid to dig into the story.
"It's all about survival and telling the truth ... you need to play it safe to continue operating or rush to this delicate story and risk your license and most importantly your life," an editor of a privately-owned Swahili newspaper said on condition of anonymity.
The government has also started cracking down on people it accuses of spreading "rumors" that Magufuli is ill through social media, threatening to charge them with cybercrime offenses. So far police have announced the arrest of one person in Dar es Salaam and two in the northern Kilimanjaro region for spreading rumors.
"Rather than give credible evidence that he's alive and well, they're arresting innocent people who want to know the truth," said Lissu.
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