In Tanzania, Magufuli and His COVID Denialism Are a Danger

Editor’s Note: Every Friday, Andrew Green curates the top news and analysis from and about the African continent. Subscribers can adjust their newsletter settings to receive Africa Watch by email every week.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has consistently downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic despite warnings from experts that his country is experiencing a surge in infections, threatening to overwhelm its health facilities. Magufuli’s skepticism has drawn rebukes from global health officials who worry that his refusal to take preventive measures may also undermine efforts to slow the spread of the virus across East Africa. The death of a senior official in the semi-autonomous Zanzibar region this week, apparently from COVID-19, may finally break Magufuli’s intransigence.

Seif Sharif Hamad, 77, was a senior leader of the opposition ACT Wazalendo party, who ran unsuccessfully six times to be president of Zanzibar. After another failed bid in 2020, newly elected Zanzibar President Hussein Mwinyi, of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, appointed Hamad first vice president, a position he had previously held between 2010 and 2015.

The government gave no official reason for Hamad’s death, but his party had revealed his COVID-19 diagnosis three weeks ago, a move that was seen as a rebuke of Magufuli’s handling of the pandemic. Dismissing the need for lockdowns and social distancing, the president maintains the virus can be defeated with prayer and herbal remedies.

Magufuli’s administration has repeatedly declared the country free of the coronavirus, even as the influential Tanzania Episcopal Conference warned of a new wave of infections last month. “Our country is not an island. We have every reason to take precautions and pray to God that we can move unscathed in this pandemic,” the conference said in a widely shared statement last month. Just days earlier, health officials in Denmark had reported that two travelers returning from Tanzania were infected with a more contagious coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa.

Magufuli has responded to the growing concern by doubling down on his skepticism, including publicly casting doubt on any COVID-19 vaccine developed abroad. Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said the country “has no plans in place to accept COVID-19 vaccines.” John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, countered that “not cooperating will make it dangerous for everybody,” and called on Tanzania to review its response.

Hamad’s death could force the issue. Though he never secured the presidency of Zanzibar, Hamad had widespread public support. And opposition parties, already critical of Magufuli’s COVID-19 stance, appear prepared to leverage his death to amplify demands for the government to adopt a more robust response.

It is a risky approach, given Magufuli’s near-total political control of the country. He could use the criticism to justify escalating a crackdown on the political opposition that began ahead of his October reelection, which Sophie Neiman wrote about in a WPR briefing. But with “hospitals becoming overwhelmed and the elderly and others losing their lives,” as ACT Wazalendo leader Zitto Kabwe tweeted this week, the opposition may decide they have no alternative but to speak out and risk a reprisal.

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Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

North Africa

Chad: During a two-day summit on the security situation in the Sahel this week, French President Emmanuel Macron committed to maintaining the 5,100 French troops currently operating in the region at least until the summer. Macron, who called in to a meeting of five Sahel leaders and their allies in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, reversed statements from earlier this year hinting he might begin drawing down French troops. He called for military operations to remain focused on the region at the borders between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, which has seen a surge in jihadist violence against both civilians and military forces in recent years. In another potential boost to the counterinsurgency efforts, Chadian President Idriss Deby promised to deploy a battalion of 1,200 troops to that region, renewing a pledge he made last year but never followed through on.

Despite intermittent gains, French and regional forces have struggled “to contain a bloody insurgency by jihadist groups” in the Sahel, as Peter Tinti wrote in a WPR briefing last June. As the summit in N’Djamena was opening, Islamist fighters killed two troops in central Mali, bringing the total of Malian, French and United Nations troops killed this year to 29, according to Agence France-Presse.

Chad President Idriss Deby and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Idriss Deby, center, and Emmanuel Macron, right, in Nouakchott, Mauritania, June 30, 2020 (AFP pool photo by Ludovic Marin via AP).

West Africa

Guinea: Officials confirmed an outbreak of Ebola Sunday, the first time the virus has been detected in the country in five years. The previous Ebola epidemic began in 2013 and lasted until 2016, killing more than 11,300 people, primarily in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. At least five people have died and as many as 13 others have been infected since the new outbreak was first detected in southern Guinea. Neighboring Liberia is also reporting a suspected case in a patient who traveled to the country from Guinea this week. The United Nations announced it is releasing $15 million from its emergency fund to assist response efforts in Guinea and also in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where an unrelated Ebola outbreak was announced earlier this month. At least four people have been infected there and two of them have died in the country’s North Kivu region.

In West Africa, health officials are scrambling to mount a response, while attempting to avoid the mistakes that marred the region’s earlier outbreak. That epidemic was fueled by “deep mistrust of governments and state institutions, decades of underinvestment in health and social services, corruption and a lack of transparency,” as John Kabia explained in a September WPR briefing.

Central Africa

Central African Republic: Two alleged leaders of a predominantly Christian rebel group that committed atrocities against Muslim civilians in the Central African Republic went on trial Tuesday at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Former soccer official Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yekatom, nicknamed Rambo, are facing charges including murder, torture and attacking civilians in 2013 and 2014. Prosecutors say they held senior positions in the anti-Balaka, a rebel movement that rose in opposition to the Muslim Seleka militias that overran the capital, Bangui, and seized power in March 2013. In the ensuing fighting, both sides were accused of committing atrocities against civilians. Ngaissona and Yekatom both pleaded not guilty to the charges. Alleged Seleka leader Mahamat Said Abdel Kain was also detained in January and a pre-trial hearing in his case is scheduled for October.

East Africa

Eritrea: The United Arab Emirates is reportedly dismantling a military base it has maintained in the East African country as a launching ground for operations in nearby Yemen. The UAE built a port and began expanding an airstrip in 2015 at a base in Assab, a port city just 40 miles from Yemen. Eritrea had granted the UAE a 30-year lease on the base, which the Emiratis used for ferrying heavy weaponry and troops to Yemen, where they fought as part of a Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The dismantling of the base, detected in satellite photos that were analyzed by the Associated Press, follows the UAE’s decision in 2019 to begin drawing down its involvement in that conflict.

Southern Africa

South Africa: Former President Jacob Zuma could face jail time after he failed to appear at a commission of inquiry hearing into possible corruption charges Monday. The commission, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, is investigating allegations of widespread corruption under Zuma’s presidency, from 2009 to 2018, including reports that he allowed wealthy patrons to capture state-owned enterprises. Zuma, “increasingly unnerved by what the commission is exposing,” has previously attempted to withdraw his cooperation from the commission and accused Zondo of bias, as James Hamill explained in a December WPR briefing. Following Zuma’s decision not to appear at Monday’s hearing, Zondo said he would ask South Africa’s Constitutional Court to hold Zuma in contempt.

Top Reads From Around the Web

New WTO Head ‘Loved’ Despite Mixed Record: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, confirmed this week as the first African and first female director-general of the World Trade Organization, campaigned for the position on her record during two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister. But those stints were marred by corruption, including disappearing oil revenue, and should have been scrutinized more closely ahead of her confirmation, critics told Agence France-Presse. Olanrewaju Suraju, an anti-corruption activist, does not accuse Okonjo-Iweala of personally profiting from the embezzlement, but “she kept quiet and allowed high level corruption to fester under the regime, only to complain after leaving office,” he said. Her supporters have dismissed the criticism, though, arguing that she is only being targeted because she is a woman.

In a Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse, Iran Eyes New Targets in Africa: Ethiopian intelligence officials recently foiled an alleged plot by Iranian agents to attack the United Arab Emirates embassy in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Now, global intelligence officials are warning the “operation was part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries where Iran might avenge painful, high-profile losses,” according to an investigation by a team of New York Times reporters. The decision to allegedly target the Emirati embassy follows the UAE’s decision last September to normalize relations with Israel, an Iranian enemy. American and Sudanese officials said Iran was also planning to attack the Emirati embassy in Khartoum. A senior U.S. defense official interviewed by the Times said the plot in Addis Ababa was linked to a separate plan, reported by Politico, to assassinate the U.S. ambassador in South Africa in retaliation for the U.S. air strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in early 2020. Officials in Tehran have vehemently denied all of the allegations.

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about health and human rights issues. You can view more of his work at www.theandrewgreen.com.

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