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The Magufuli mystery

Pressure is mounting on officials to explain the whereabouts of President Magufuli amid conflicting reports about his health

At first it was cryptic tweets from well-informed local commentators and the subject of discreet diplomatic conversations, and then reporters took up the search for Tanzania's President John Magufuli late last week. Magufuli, who had been downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic until earlier this year, hasn't been seen in public since 24 February.

Magufuli had been due to speak at an East African virtual regional summit on 27 February but Vice-President Samia Suluhu stood in for him, although she offered no explanation for the President's absence.

'Nobody knows anything … apart from his absence from one prior-scheduled and publicly known event,' said a key state official in Tanzania, explaining that there was an information vacuum across government about Magufuli's health and location.

A senior doctor in Dar es Salaam told Africa Confidential of his concerns, adding '…it is difficult to piece things together as the space around him [Magufuli] is so protected'. On 10 March, print and television journalists in Nairobi filed reports suggesting that President Magufuli was being treated in the Kenyan capital after contracting Covid-19, prompting another round of Chinese whispers. 

Political and medical sources in Dar es Salaam differ on the seriousness of the president’s condition, and even his location. So far, nothing has been confirmed by the authorities in Dodoma or Nairobi. 

Opposition politicians have been weighing in. Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) presidential candidate Tundu Lissu told Africa Confidential on 7 March he had been hearing rumours about Magufuli's health but nothing had been confirmed. 

On 9 March, Lissu tweeted that the President's health 'was a matter of grave public concern' asking why the public was being kept in the dark. It was given information about the medical treatment of former presidents Julius Nyerere, Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, said Lissu. Other opposition sources told us an emergency cabinet meeting had been called for 9 March which was presided over by Vice-President Suluhu.

Magufuli only conceded the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic in late February and his government was slow to impose significant restrictions (AC Vol 61 No 10, The Magufuli experiment and Vol 61 No 7, Magufuli the outlier). Many Tanzanians had already been wearing masks for several weeks and taking physical distancing measures.

Journalists have also been able to confirm from officials in Nairobi that the unnamed leader's government had earlier refused to accept vaccines or publish daily figures on infection and death rates, as was the case with Tanzania. 

In the early hours of 10 March, Kenya's online newspapers and television networks started reporting that Magufuli had been admitted to The Nairobi Hospital, located in the affluent Upper Hill district of the Kenyan capital. It is the medical facility of choice for government officials in East Africa.

Yet a well-informed medical professional in Kenya told Africa Confidential that reports that Magufuli had been admitted to The Nairobi Hospital were '100% false'. A medical expert with long experience in the region said that facilities at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam were as good as anything in Nairobi. 

Secrecy has characterised the Magufuli government's handling of the pandemic, as well as information about senior officials struck down by the virus. Last week, a visibly unwell Minister of Finance, Philip Mpango, gave a press conference at the hospital where he is being treated (AC Dispatches, From pandemic to infodemic).

The Tanzanian president is not the only senior politician claimed to be in The Nairobi Hospital this week. The Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader, Raila Odinga, was admitted on Tuesday, the third anniversary of his 'handshake' with President Uhuru Kenyatta that has reshaped the country's political alliances. 

Odinga's doctors said on Wednesday that he had walked into the hospital complaining of fatigue and was expected to be quickly discharged.

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