Tanzanian president’s absence sparks concern over possible illness

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has earned a reputation as one of the world leaders most sceptical of efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: Twitter/@RuvhenekoP

Tanzania’s president John Magufuli, who has denied Covid-19 poses a threat to his people, has not appeared in public since February 24, raising speculation that he may have fallen ill.

Magufuli, 61, had been due in Dodoma, the capital, on Wednesday at a military ceremony and has not been to church for two successive Sundays in spite of his devout beliefs and his professed views that public gatherings are safe.

Tundu Lissu, an opposition leader, demanded that the president make his whereabouts known, saying the public had a right to know if he was sick. “The man has been out of sight since February 24 and his government has maintained absolute silence about his absence,” he told the Financial Times. “My Kenyan sources tell me he’s hospitalised in Nairobi.”

According to one person briefed on the president’s health, Magufuli is seriously ill. The person, who asked not be identified, said they had been briefed on the matter by a member of the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service.

Hassan Abbasi, Tanzania’s government spokesman, ignored messages and phone calls on Wednesday seeking comment on the president’s health. Asked on Friday about reports, some circulated by members of the opposition, that the president was on a ventilator, he replied with a string of laughing emojis.

But speculation has intensified in the media since then that the president, nicknamed “the Bulldozer” because of his blunt style, has fallen ill. The president has a history of heart problems and wears a pacemaker.

The Nation, an independent Kenyan newspaper, published a story on Wednesday saying that “an African leader” from a country clearly identified as Tanzania had been admitted to Nairobi Hospital. The hospital declined to comment.

Tanzania’s government has refused offers of Covid-19 vaccines from Covax, an international body that distributes vaccines to poorer countries, after Magufuli said his people were protected by God. In a speech last month, the president asserted that Tanzania had “stayed for a year without coronavirus”.

Several senior Tanzanian politicians have died or been sick with coronavirus-like symptoms, according to people who know family members. Last year, there were reports, including video shared on social media, of funerals held at night with pallbearers wearing protective clothing. Doctors have spoken privately about hospitals filling up with Covid-19 patients and a critical shortage of oxygen.

Charles Kitima, secretary-general of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, a grouping of Catholic bishops, said the clergy accepted that the threat of Covid-19 was real. “We feel that we have an obligation to tell the society that Covid-19 is also in Tanzania, and the people are dying, and we are conducting funerals,” he said.

Magufuli has ridiculed Covid-19 testing as unscientific and his government stopped reporting coronavirus infections and deaths to the World Health Organization in May last year when the country’s official death toll from the virus stood at 21.

Three days before his disappearance, Magufuli appeared to soften his stance that Covid-19 could be warded off through prayer and only affected foreigners. On February 21, speaking during Sunday mass in Dodoma, he conceded there were risks from the virus. He said people should wear masks, so long as they were locally made. – Financial Times