Dar es Salaam (AFP)
Where is the Tanzanian President John Magufuli?
Tuesday marks 17 days since the 61-year-old was seen in public, and despite a clamor of rumors of ill health, the Tanzanian authorities have yet to provide clear answers on his fate.
The simple question is now leading to arrests, as the government seeks to contain rumors.
And analysts say the silence is telling.
“I think whatever happens… it is clearly true that the regime is trying to buy time,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
“And it really doesn’t make sense that the regime is trying to buy time if the president is very ill, incapable or dead. ”
Magufuli last appeared in public on February 27, and the devout Catholic missed three Sunday services, where he often addressed the congregation.
Days earlier, Finance Minister Philip Mpango appeared to cough and gasp during a press conference outside a hospital, to dispel rumors that he had died of Covid-19.
– Repelled by prayer –
Magufuli’s absence comes amid a string of high-profile deaths and illnesses attributed to “breathing problems” or “pneumonia.”
Magufuli had insisted for months that the virus no longer existed in Tanzania and had been repelled by prayer. He refused to wear a face mask or take lockdown action.
The country stopped publishing case data in April 2020.
But a week before his last sight, Magufuli admitted the virus was still circulating, after the semi-autonomous Zanzibar vice president was revealed to have died from Covid-19.
On Tuesday, main opposition leader Tundu Lissu, exiled in Belgium, and others began to question Magufuli’s absence, citing sources that he was gravely ill with Covid-19, made worse by underlying health problems.
– ‘Tell the truth!’ –
Lissu said on Twitter on Monday that his intelligence sources “say he’s on life support with COVID and paralyzed on one side and waist down after a stroke. Tell people the truth! ”
Among the theories in circulation, Magufuli is gravely ill in a hospital in Kenya or India, while another suggests that he never left Tanzania at all.
Kenyan media reported the presence of an “African leader” in a Nairobi hospital in clear reference to Magufuli, although government officials deny his presence.
India’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Cheeseman said it was “remarkable” that the government kept Magufuli’s whereabouts a secret “in the modern world of the Internet and citizen reporting and social media.”
“But Tanzania does not live in this modern world. The level of media censorship means Tanzania is not in this context. ”
The Tanzanian government has said very little other than threatening those who spread rumors of jail terms.
– ‘It’s time to stay united’ –
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said on Friday that Magufuli was “strong and working as usual”.
On Monday, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan hinted that the President was ill, without naming him.
“Our country is now full of rumors coming from outside but this must be ignored… It is quite normal for a person to contract the flu, fever or any other illness,” she said.
“If it is necessary for us to stand united, now is the time. ”
Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party, said the government was only giving way to panic.
“We know for sure that the president is ill, but we are surprised by the increasingly deep silence on the issue,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We need to know who is currently running the government through what constitutional powers. ”
– “Useless secret” –
Meanwhile, Tanzanians say they want to see their leader in person.
“I think something is going on but the authorities are in hiding,” said Muhsin, a resident of the financial capital Dar es Salaam.
“I will be comfortable if I see the president himself. ”
Clothing saleswoman Deborah said there was “an unnecessary secret”.
“If our beloved president is really sick, they should tell us the truth so that we put it in our prayers,” she said.
Magufuli came to power in 2015 as a sensible, anti-corruption president dubbed the “Bulldozer,” and was re-elected in a controversial poll last year.
However, he has been accused by rights groups of stifling democracy and suppressing the media.
As a result, journalists across the country are too afraid to delve into history.
“It’s all about survival and telling the truth … you have to play it safe to continue operating or rush into this delicate matter and risk your license and especially your life,” said an editor of a private Swahili newspaper. anonymity.
The government has also started cracking down on people it accuses of spreading “rumors” that Magufuli was ill via social media, threatening to charge them with cybercrime.
Police have so far announced the arrest of one person in Dar es Salaam and two in the northern Kilimanjaro region for spreading rumors.
“Rather than giving credible proof that he is alive and well, they are arresting innocent people who want to know the truth,” Lissu said.
© 2021 AFP