A cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over Tanzania and the East African region as speculation abounds on the whereabouts and wellbeing of President John Pombe Magufuli.
The Tanzanian Executive has in the past few days been forced to come out to fight rumours that the leader is sick and admitted to hospital in critical condition.
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa on Friday came out to declare that the President was well and busy at work, hence his conspicuous absence from public engagements, something for which he is popular. He however, did not state where the leader is or give further evidence of his assertion.
On Friday, speaking in Njombe Region after Friday prayers, Mr Majaliwa dismissed claims on social and mainstream media that have gone on most of the week that President Magufuli was ailing and has been flown to a neighbouring country for specialised treatment. International media reported that Dr Magufuli was being treated for Covid-19-related complications, putting pressure on the government to come clean.
Chadema secretary-general John Mnyika said yesterday at a Press conference that the country was concerned with the health and whereabouts of the President, who was last seen in public on February 27.
“Chadema leaders have resolved to demand explanations from the government about the President’s whereabouts and state of his health,” he said.
On Friday, Mr Majaliwa asked Tanzanians to remain calm.
“President Magufuli is faring well. Fake news on his health stem from hatred. How is such fabrication going to help you? You want him out… Have you ever found the President loitering at Kariakoo?”
“The honourable President directed me to greet you and thank you for votes you cast for him last year,” he said told Muslim worshippers.
Mr Majaliwa blamed Tanzanians in diaspora, saying they were behind the media reports that the President was sick and had been flown out of the country.
“They are not here, they are outside. Those of us who are inside have remained calm. But, we know some of them; their fathers, mothers, young brothers and sisters are here,” he said. “They are doing this out of hatred, jealousy. They would like to see this country collapsing because they live overseas.”
It is the missing link in the messaging by an administration whose leader often demands maximum loyalty and has in the past summarily dismissed those who stray, that has fuelled speculation that all may not be well.
President Magufuli has not been seen in public since February 27 when he swore in Dr Bashiru Ali, at the Dar es Salaam State House, replacing former diplomat John Kijazi, who had died of a heart attack. The President then skipped the virtual East African Community Summit of Heads of State, where he was represented by his Vice-President Samia Suluhu.
His unusual absence, including not showing up at public church services, raised the alarm earlier in the week, with exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu accusing the government of not telling the public the truth.
The response from Dar es Salaam this week has included an attack on the critics of the government, foreign media and a warning on local journalists.
“The President’s well-being is a matter of grave public concern. We’re informed when Kikwete had prostate surgery,” Mr Lissu said, referring to the President Jakaya Kikwete’s 2014 operation in the US. He later claimed he was free of cancer.
“We’re told when Mkapa went for hip replacement. We’re not kept in the dark when Mwalimu fought leukemia. What’s it with Magufuli that we don’t deserve to know?” Former President Benjamin Mkapa had also had hip surgery in Zurich twice in 2003 and 2004.
The question remained unanswered.
Mwigulu Nchemba, Tanzania’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs minister, warned Lissu of provisions in the Penal Code, and dismissed those demanding the information on the President.
“The Head of State is not a Parish worker or church elder with a routine to be seen,” Nchemba said on Thursday.
“The Head of State is not a TV presenter with a programme, which he didn’t show up. He is not a leader of a jogging club required to be in the same place every day,” he said.
Dr Nchemba’s comments were followed by an assertion by Tanzanian ambassador to Namibia Modestus Kipilimba that President Magufuli was well, and going about his work.
The President likes public appearances. Even in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he went about his work, addressing public gatherings and inspecting development projects. He was regularly quoted saying his country had defeated the disease through prayer. He appeared at churches, asking the public to continue praying, launched bridges, castigated lazy civil servants as crowds watched and turned up at government offices unannounced to reprimand civil servants.
But this disappearance is not the first time the President has not been seen in public for some time. In 2019, after speculation about his health, he appeared on national TV to swear in government officials.
So where is he now?
Credible reports this week indicated he had been brought to Kenya for specialised treatment.
Mr Lissu later claimed he had been flown to India, a claim that remains unverified. The very aspect of being flown to another country, however, runs counter to his nationalistic tendencies, where he often exacted policies to protect local industries.
In his second term, President Magufuli won by the biggest ever margin in Tanzania’s multiparty history, collecting 84.39 per cent of the vote — 12.5 million votes. His 14 challengers collectively polled less than a fifth of the total votes cast with, Mr Lissu garnering just 1.9 million votes. Critics accused the government of harassing the opposition, intimidating the media and rigging in some candidates. Mr Lissu fled to Belgium, citing threats on his life.