President John Pombe Magufuli

Former President the late John Pombe Magufuli on the campaign trail in Dodoma on September 22, 2020 ahead of the country's presidential elections.

| File | Nation Media Group

Secrets, the CCM legacy and the Magufuli illness

What you need to know:

  • Freedom of expression has been under attack as Dr Magufuli entrenched his rule.
  • The president’s death is expected to put to great test the shaky union between the mainland and semi-autonomous Zanzibar island.

When President John Joseph Pombe Magufuli was taken ill and sought treatment at a Dar es Salaam hospital, the country’s State House kept silent and left the rumour mill to fill the void.

The President’s last function was the swearing-in of ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Secretary-General Bashiru Ally as chief secretary and ambassador on February 27, a function reported on the State House website.

The secrecy is part of the CCM ideology, borrowed from the Chinese Communist Party and which was loved by Tanzania’s first generation of political leaders under Julius Nyerere – an admirer of Mao Zedong, a founding member of China’s Party.

John Pombe Magufuli

Tanzania's ruling party CCM presidential candidate John Magufuli delivers his speech during a campaign rally in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Oct. 21, 2015.

Photo credit: File | Xinhua/Etienne Versaevel

Like Mao, Nyerere wore the collarless shirts and abhorred corruption and capitalism. He crafted his party to follow the Chinese path.

The secrecy surrounding Dr Magufuli’s illness mimics that of Chairman Mao, who first disappeared from the public. His health was considered a state secret. 

The announcement of Mao’s death was delayed as the government called for national unity.

While there were rumours on the whereabouts of President Magufuli, the Tanzania PM said he was well and working.

Legacy of secrecy

As one of the oldest post-independent outfits still in power in Africa, CCM rose from the merger of Afro-Shirazi party and Nyerere’s Tanu in February 1977.

Until 1992, its chairman was nominated as the country’s President and confirmed in a national referendum.

CCM continued with Tanu’s policy contained in the 1967 Arusha Declaration, which set the country on the socialism path.

After that, there was little separation between the party and the government. The system’s main critic Oscar Kambona was in exile in Kensington, London.

Despite the emergence of other political parties, CCM continues to win, and rig, elections – depending on whom you ask.

But it is the legacy of secrecy and fear that continues within the State that recently emerged when Magufuli fell sick.

The closest admission that he was ailing came from Vice-President Samia Suluhu on March 15 when she went to inspect projects in Tanga.

She told a rally that it is “normal for a human being to undergo checkups for flu, fever and other illnesses”.

On life support

That was after exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu tweeted that Magufuli “is sick somewhere (and) is on life support”. 

On that day, police had arrested Mr Charles Manjura, a phone technician, for spreading rumours that Dr Magufuli was sick.

Freedom of expression has been under attack as Dr Magufuli entrenched his rule.

A former CCM youth winger, he was one of the early leaders who went through the military orientation in the party – and which largely influenced their politics.

President John Pombe Magufuli

President John Pombe Magufuli talks to medical staff and victims of the Morogoro petrol tanker explosion at the Muhimbili Hospital on August 11, 2019. Dr Magufuli died on Wednesday March 17, 2021.

Photo credit: AFP

Such is the nature of members of the powerful Elders Council, which dictates politics in Tanzania.

During its days, CCM was the supreme policy-making organ. It was above parliament and every other state institution. 

The military and the intelligence were practising members of CCM. Most are still in that default setting.

It is the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service (TISS) that is being blamed for misleading the world that Magufuli was out of the country. 


Whether that was deliberate misinformation is not clear. The media sourced the story from Lissu as a veil of secrecy fell on Tanzania.

“Strong rumour out of Tanzania that the story of Magufuli in Kenya was concocted by TISS to deflect attention from fact he is in a coma in Dar. That would be some trick,” wrote Nic Cheeseman, a professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, the United Kingdom.

Ms Suluhu is from the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, which has its own president and parliament. 

Zanzibar also sends five representatives to the Tanzania Parliament.

There has been tension between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania, with most recent polls in the island marked by violence and fraud accusations by the Civic United Front (CUF).

In 2017, Magufuli threatened to cut electricity supply to the islands if Zanzibar failed to pay a TSh121 billion debt.

How this relationship will grow with Suluhu, whose name loosely translates to “solution”, as the new president of Tanzania remains to be seen. 

The death of Dr Magufuli will open new debate on the ruling party and the future of the union.


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