Speculation is mounting about the health of President John Magufuli, who has not been seen in public since late February. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu today, 11 March, claimed that Magufuli is receiving medical treatment in India, but for now the situation is entirely uncertain. Below we explore the potential implications of Magufuli’s absence or even incapacitation.
Magufuli’s absence, particularly if it were as a result of Covid-19, could begin to change the government’s hitherto recalcitrant stance on the pandemic. Tanzania has earned itself the dubious reputation of being a Covid-19 denialist, with the Magufuli administration refusing to report Covid-19 figures, to implement public health measures and to plan a vaccination campaign – making the country a complete outlier in a region scrambling for access to vaccines.
However, senior government members have recently taken ill or passed away, chipping away at the government’s ability to deny the pandemic. Although the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) administration typically will not disclose Covid-19 diagnoses, Minister of Finance and Planning Dr. Philip Mpango was hospitalized for two weeks in February. Following a widely criticized public appearance in which he was coughing without wearing a mask – probably made to dispel rumors that he had passed away – the minister is reportedly back at work. Yet Magufuli’s Chief Secretary John Kijazi passed away in February, apparently from heart failure, following which Magufuli called for three days of prayer for unspecified “respiratory” illnesses. Zanzibar’s First Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad also passed away in February. In his case, the opposition ACT Wazalendo disclosed Covid-19 as the cause; his departure leaves a gap in a landmark power-sharing agreement reached between the CCM and the opposition following the 2020 elections.
Perhaps as a result of mounting cases that are increasingly difficult to deny – in combination with external pressure and travel warnings from countries like the US, Oman and Kenya – the government has begun slightly to soften its denialist approach to the pandemic. Just before his disappearance from public view, Magufuli began to suggest that people should wear masks, if they were locally made. Such statements are too little too late, though external pressure is also increasing on the government to finally develop a vaccination plan, and to accept COVAX vaccines.
While it is still premature to speculate about Magufuli’s exit from office in any form, this scenario would have major implications. In the event of the president’s death or incapacitation, the constitution provides for the vice-president to be sworn in as president for the remainder of the five-year term (which runs until 2025). As a result, Samia Suluhu Hassan, the country’s first ever female vice-president who hails from the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, could thus be unexpectedly catapulted to the top of union politics.
Magufuli’s departure could thus provide the first tentative opening for a political reset within the CCM, on which the president has had a Trump-like stranglehold ever since he was elected as its leader. At worst, Suluhu’s leadership could be challenged by Magufuli’s faction, which could try to replace her with the leader constitutionally next in line (the speaker of parliament). At best, a Magufuli exit could trigger the beginning of a course correction of the president’s radical ‘Ujamaa’-inspired economic policies, or at least his denialist vaccine stance.