Governance, Death and Rumours in Tanzania
The Mystery of Magufuli’s Illness and Death: Rethinking the Place of Rumours in Contemporary Digitised African Politics
By Kinyua Laban Kithinji,
Faculty of Global Studies,
On 17th March 2021, a visibly shaken then Vice-President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan, announced the death of the sitting President, His Excellency John Pombe Joseph Magufuli. This announcement settled over two-week-long rumours and speculations about his health and whereabouts and a state struggle to manage information. President Magufuli’s death added to the long list of prominent Tanzanians rumoured to have succumbed to COVID-19 related complications. However, the vice president’s speech was categorical: Magufuli’s death resulted from heart complications that he had fought for ten years. She was also firm that the late President died while receiving treatment at a Dar es Salaam hospital. The emphasis on these two issues concerning what killed the President and where he died was targeted to confronting a growing discourse popularised by the media, especially in neighbouring Kenya and a section of opposition politicians in the diaspora.
The state’s machinery struggled to manage the information from a connection of Magufuli’s health and death to COVID-19. He had publicly denied its existence but later seemed to admit reluctantly that it was becoming a challenge in Tanzania. These events depict how Magufuli, nicknamed the “bulldozer” for his courage to tackle corruption, was feared. They also point to what some considered to be his “dictatorial” stances. The stories arising from his absence and later death in various ways call for the re-interpretation of the regaining in prominence of the role of rumours. Once a state’s monopoly, rumours are now efficiently utilised by ordinary citizens in day-to-day live-worlds in digital platforms as a political tool for new forms of authoritarian states in Africa.
The intersection of pandemic and rumours: Faceoff between Kenya and Tanzania
Kenya and Tanzania took two divergent approaches when the first COVID-19 cases were reported in the two countries in early March 2020. Inspired by the positions of their leaders, people in the two countries also reacted in contrasting ways. In Tanzania, the authorities arrested many innocent citizens for “falsely” spreading rumours about COVID-19. Public opinion in Kenya in the early days of COVID-19 largely praised Tanzania for not gagging the freedom of its people, sometimes referring to decisions by President Magufuli as “heroic.” As the reality of COVID-19 struck, Kenyans interacting with Tanzanians were criticized for paying undue attention to a ‘non-existent’ pandemic. In late May at Namanga border, contradicting measures against the disease in the two countries sparked a controversy. Officials and citizens accused each other, with the Tanzania side visibly arguing that Kenyan drivers were to blame for transporting the virus to Tanzania (see The Citizen at shorturl. at/dghCU). This incident led to a halt of activities between the two countries that only resumed after President Magufuli and President Uhuru Kenyatta's high-level intervention. The public perceptions also seemed to have shifted in Kenya about Tanzania’s approach to the pandemic based on the reality of COVID-19 victims. For instance, Royal Media Services was forced to air a week-long apology to Magufuli following a negative story (see shorturl. at/mqIPV).
Upon Magufuli’s death, the Kenyan president made an official televised state address in which he declared seven days of mourning. Of course, this kind of announcement is not surprising, at least in diplomatic terms, as an expression of cordial relationship. However, it contradicted the public discourse that seemed to have been building momentum in Kenya. Hours before President Kenyatta’s address on 18th March 2021, Magufuli’s death dominated the Kenyan media morning talk shows. Several commentators seemed to break ranks with a popularly accepted “common sense” that African cultures do not speak negatively about the dead. Thus, several commentators showered praises on Magufuli’s achievements, but also categorically pointed out their displeasure with how he related to Kenya. Magufuli was a firm champion of “Tanzania first” policies. Through a Facebook post, Salim Lone eulogised him as “a strong, patriotic, and a rare leader who did not fear challenging the established regional and global orthodoxy in pursuit of the [wellbeing of] struggling and marginalised… Tanzanians.” Defenders of regionalism and global systems castigated Magufuli, with some asserting that his approaches sounded like the 1905 Maji Maji rebellion (Iliffe, 1967). The policy differences between Kenya and Tanzania seem to have been gradually resonating with the grassroots. On the same show, the governor of Machakos county in Kenya, Alfred Mutua, attested to a certain Tanzanian clergy’s demeaning sermon. He had targeted mourners from Kenya, who, according to him, wore masks at the service while others did not, accusing them of “taking corona too seriously” (Citizen TV, State of the Nation, 17th March 2021).
By early 2021, President Magufuli had softened his firm stance on COVID-19. Nevertheless, he was still categorical that the pandemic would be confronted the “Tanzanian way,” as witnessed in his 21st February 2021 remarks on wearing masks. He said, “sijasema msifae barakoa, kuna zingine mnafalia zinaleta magonjwa… kama utafalia tumia zilizotengenezwa na wizara ya afya.” (I have not said that you should not put on masks, but there are those you use that are “coming here” contaminated… if you have to, wear the ones manufactured by [Tanzania] ministry of health” (see Genga, 2021 @ shorturl.at/msxGN).
To Tanzanians who were positively touched by the no-nonsense approach of Magufuli in dealing with corruption among public officials, he will be dearly missed. His “bulldozer” anti-corruption approach was sometimes at the expense of ridiculing high-profile civil servants in public. This approach won him praise as a “necessary evil,” especially tackling the corrupt hands-on and implementing remarkable infrastructural projects. While the Tanzanian public idolised this Magufuli character, the Kenyan public seemed to focus on the “oliskia wapi” mentality. This phrase, which translates as “where did you hear it from,” is attributed to the former M. P for Kilwa South in Tanzania, Suleman Bunjara. It criticises the Magufuli government. It became popular among Kenyans on social media, using it to question the authenticity of various issues in what propagates a rather glaring political expression where your truth is yours and your sources do not matter. Kenyans took such an attitude to dismiss the reality of COVID-19 when it was convenient, and especially when economic realities of the measures taken by the state bit. Rumours that there was “no corona” in Tanzania were also gaining admiration among Kenyans. Such stories’ culmination was a bold declaration on social media platforms by ordinary citizens who purported to know Magufuli’s condition. One such example is a Facebook post from councilor Njohi: “Magufuli died last week. I broke the news of his death over a week ago.”
Mystery in illness, mystery in death
Social media platforms became a battleground for creating COVID-19 realities by members of the public in the two countries. Similarly, narratives were created that sought to provide answers to the questions about the missing president from late February 2021 to the time of his death. Questions and speculations of the whereabouts of President Magufuli escalated when Tundu Antiphasa Lissu, the exiled leader of the opposition in Tanzania, tweeted (on 9th March 2021) questioning why the state was not categorical on the health of Magufuli, terming it an issue of “grave public concern.” The media in neighbouring Kenya escalated the rumours but carefully avoided mentioning the name of the “prominent politician” admitted at the Nairobi hospital. It seemed easier to settle on unconfirmed fears that Magufuli had contacted COVID-19.
Those backing such claims pointed to the demise of Magufuli’s closest allies, who included the chief state house secretary John Kijazi, the former governor of Bank of Tanzania Benno Ndulu the former deputy finance minister Gregory Teu among others. They were all rumoured to have succumbed to COVID-19 related complications.
As Kenyan media and various social media platforms speculated on Magufuli’s presence in Nairobi, scores of other media in Tanzania had different speculations. These stories claimed Magufuli had been hospitalised at Mzena state hospital since 7th March 2021. This claim dispelled any possibilities of Magufuli being admitted to the Nairobi hospital. Thus, although the Nairobi story essentially caught the eyes of the global media, it is only likely that it was a hoax. It would turn out later, as per the words of President Suluhu, that Magufuli had not left Tanzania and that he had died at a hospital in Dar es Salam.
Attempts to understand the realities of COVID-19 in Tanzania and Kenya by ordinary citizens are fraught with rumours disseminated in social media spaces. The demise of Magufuli escalated those rumours as citizens of both countries sought to unravel the missing president’s mystery. Truth and rumour are a juxtaposition of the official discourse with the intelligent but unproven analysis implicit in waves of rumours. In the African context, rumour can be an index of political awareness and an alternative to blind trust in the workings of modernist reason in state-influenced institutions (Musila, 2015). Rumours, therefore, are “weapons of the weak” (Scott, 2008) against the state that has successfully been subjugating and usurping the opposition, the media, and the civil society, which were once effective instruments for the oppressed masses to take part in democratic processes.
In all ways, it is ironic and somewhat remarkable for the state to “safeguard” a secret of the president’s whereabouts in the age of rampant increased use of social media and digital democracy. Nic Cheeseman (2021) described the set of rumours surrounding the whereabouts of Magufuli as “Machiavellian intrigue… never seen since the demise of Robert Mugabe...” Cheeseman adds that these rumours bore a lesson for Tanzanian politics, arguing that the rumours surrounding the whereabout of Magufuli showed the danger of authoritarian states’ attempts to censor information while failing to ensure a credible replacement of the news vacuum. Cheeseman suggests that such rumours are a signpost to the difficulty of managing succession in factionalist states. The words of president Suluhu on several occasions during the state burial reaffirming her presidency attests to succession struggles that may have ensued prompting a delay in announcing Magufuli’s status. In addition, such rumours are also pointers to the complex patterns of state relations with digital spaces which have been endowing ordinary citizens with unique opportunities to negotiate and navigate livelihoods.
Magufuli’s attitude shows how deeply rumours can be trusted and are deep-rooted in African society. His attitude to COVID-19 won him praise in Tanzania, but also concerns among some (see reactions from the Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC) available at shorturl.at/m.JKN7).He created a discourse that seemed to gain authenticity as he claimed a locally based approach to dealing with COVID-19, which included herbal medicines, in collaboration with Madagascar, and natural sanitisation methods. This approach attracted divergent views, sometimes revealing contradictions of faith, culture, and science and challenging Africans to underscore their own means of combating the global pandemic.
At the local level, the Magufuli approach has shown the state’s new strategy to assert legitimacy that taps into the character of easy to “buy” media. Magufuli’s health did not improve, which denied the state the opportunity to dispel speculations about his health and perhaps prove he did not contact COVID-19 and fly to Nairobi for treatment. But whether President Suluhu’s statement was right or wrong, the state was successful with its strategy to lobby media with the public relation stunts against narratives popularised by social media against state propaganda. In death, Magufuli is only to be eulogised in purely African expressions of the beloved leader, loved and adored by his people.
Magufuli, though “democratically” elected, has inspired an admiration of Africa’s strongmen similar to Paul Kagame. They rule with an iron fist but are untouchable because they bring the much desired “development” to their people. This notion is becoming increasingly popular in African politics. These strong men are legitimised by enormous masses influenced by the state’s hyper discourses in social media platforms. The intersection of digital democracy and an overactive PR state will shape the future of African democracy and society and thus does require attention. Magufuli’s sickness and death will also elucidate a need for new analysis on the re-emerging issue regarding prominent African politicians getting sick. The state’s strict control of information prompts questions about if Africans cannot handle the truth. Finally, underlying Magufuli’s death was also the issue that the secrecies were managing and scheming the transition of power, especially in the view that revealing the truth would precipitate chaos. Magufuli’s death ushered in the first female president in East Africa. It will be essential to see if transition fears were at all founded and if the new president will depart from the “Magufulification” of Tanzania.
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Musila, G. (2015). A death retold in truth and rumour. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey.
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Scott, J. (2008). Weapons of the Weak. New Haven: Yale University Press.