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Magufuli’s on COVID-19: When Populism goes to Dangerous Extents

When John Pombe Magufuli was elected President of Tanzania in 2015, there was widespread frenzy and optimism, inspired by his seemingly pragmatic brand of politics. Magufuli was also praised for his austere measures regarding government spending. Fiscal prudence is a practice that a lot of African leaders can emulate because, despite being the poorest continent, Africa is notorious for splurging finances on initiatives that only serve gluttonous regimes and their adherents. As Magufuli approaches the end of his first term, it is fair that we appraise his last five years in power and ascertain whether or not he still warrants the support he was bountifully given during the advent of his presidency. This piece looks at how he has dealt with COVID-19 as a case study of his politicking; he has made headlines due to his novel approach to COVID-19.

While most of Africa and the world have been frantic in trying to curb the spread of COVID-19, by imposing total and partial lockdowns, Magufuli has baulked at such measures and urged his citizens to reach out to God as their protector. This advice would be farcical if its possible consequences were not so dire. In his mind, God, rather than masks and medical approaches, is the best defence against COVID-19. He has thus rejected calls to impose a lockdown on economic areas. To be fair, Magufuli’s reluctance to close down economic hubs like Dar es Salaam is understandable because Tanzania generates a considerable portion of its revenue from there. However, his appeal to God seems populist and does not accord with the scientific approach that has been used elsewhere. It is a fact that Tanzania, East Africa’s most populous nation, has not been hit very severely by COVID-19, compared to other big populations like Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. 

However, Tanzania’s current situation should not be a reason for the populist approach that Magufuli has taken. The commonsense dictum that prevention is better than cure fits the current situation. No doubt, Magufuli’s religious approach will win him the support of staunch religious believers in his country but it might prove to be disastrous on scientific grounds and hence perilous to the same people he wants court. He is also unwittingly drawing a wedge that need not be there between science and religion. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is heartening that some religious groups elsewhere have adhered to established precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Magufuli finds himself espousing the cavalier attitude that Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil initially assumed. This lackadaisical approach is dangerous, as has been proved in both Brazil and the US. Magufuli should prioritize the safety and lives of his people over his political ambitions. Later in the year, Tanzania is supposed to head to the presidential and parliamentary elections. For this reason, the incumbent wants to posture himself as a champion of his people’s welfare and one way of doing this is maintaining the usual status quo of economic activity even if it is at variance with medical and scientific opinion. 

Using the advantage of hindsight, Magufuli’s populist stance in the face of COVID-19 should not strike one as a complete surprise. His crackdown on the media and his extreme measures to liquidate the LGBTQ community are hallmarks of a dangerous brand of populism and authoritarianism. African governments, by and large, have been very touchy on issues such as rights of homosexual persons and have fed their constituents a surfeit of hate, claiming that homosexuality is not only alien to Africa but against God’s design. In a continent where religion has been weaponized to spread hate and attack some forms of difference, appeals such as Magufuli’s are potent for growing one’s political base. However, with his latest ruse to use appeals to religion as a response to COVID-19, Magufuli is flirting with danger. In a curious series of events, he is now urging the World Bank to cancel Africa’s debt so that African governments can use their savings to battle COVID-19. There is some merit in this proposition but it does not go in tandem with Magufuli’s ineffectual approach to the pandemic. In the end, it is disappointing that another leader who initially inspired optimism and a break from the ilk of leadership that has come to be expected of most African politicians is slowly careening in that wrong direction, aided by dangerous populism and creeping authoritarianism. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg

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