Where is Tanzania’s President John Magufuli?


Tuesday marks 17 days since the 61-year-old has been seen in public, and despite a clamour of rumours 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 rumours.

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 February 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 rumours he had died of Covid-19.

Fended off by prayer
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.

‘Tell the truth!’
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.

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Kenyan media have reported the presence of “an African leader” in a Nairobi hospital in 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 rumours with jail time.