Tanzanian officials have dismissed speculation about the health and wellbeing of President John Magufuli two weeks after he was last seen in public.
On Friday, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa in an address in Njombe asked Tanzanians to ignore what he called online detractors who want to cause panic about the health of the president. He said, “The president is busy, where do they expect him to go to, Kariakoo or Magomeni? It has never happened.”
He added that he spoke with the president on phone in the morning, and “he directed me to tell you that he loves you very much and thanks you for the many votes you cast for him.”
He went on to castigate unnamed people whom he said wished Tanzania ill and spread hate and wishing death on others which is not normal. He said, “Let me rest your minds, your president is well and doing his usual office work.”
President Magufuli’s last public outing came at the end of February during a working tour of Dar es Salaam city when he inaugurated a new interchange in the Ubungo area and later presided over the opening of the new Mbezi upcountry bus terminal which is named after him.
On February 27 he swore in his new Chief Secretary, Dr Bashiru Ally, at State House in Dar es Salaam, replacing John Kijazi who died on February 17. His last known official engagement came about two weeks ago when he briefly attended a virtual East African Heads of State Summit before leaving Vice President Samia Suluhu to represent him during the rest of the discussions.
Then he disappeared from public view. A regular churchgoer, President Magufuli has missed the last two Sunday services and has not been seen anywhere. This has sparked widespread speculation in and out of the country about his well-being and whereabouts.
His retreat from public view has coincided with reports in newspapers in the region suggesting that high-ranking officials from Tanzania have been receiving treatment for breathing complications similar to those seen in patients afflicted by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in hospitals in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Related reports suggested that a top Tanzanian official could have been flown to a hospital in India. There has been no evidence that President Magufuli is one of them but Tanzanian opposition politicians and civil society actors have been asking the government to provide more information about his whereabouts.
“The president is a public servant and he is accountable to the public,” Maria Sarungi, a prominent human rights activist said. “They must tell us if he is on holiday. And if he is sick, they should also tell us. All information about the president’s health should be made public.”
Her comments followed claims on the micro-blogging platform, Twitter, by former presidential candidate Tundu Lissu that the Tanzanian leader was unwell and receiving medical attention in hospital with Covid-related complications.
The story has hardly been picked up on Tanzanian media and government operations have continued apace, despite the widespread speculation. On Tuesday afternoon Vice President Suluhu, who under Tanzania’s constitution would take office in Magufuli’s absence, chaired an emergency session of Cabinet but sources said there was no discussion on the president’s health.
Later, Information Minister Innocent Bashungwa tweeted: “I urge the media and citizens to stick to obtaining information through official sources… using rumours as official information is a violation of the laws governing the media industry. Avoid disseminating unconfirmed reports that you will be held responsible for.”
Apart from Mr Lissu, other opposition leaders have also raised questions about the president’s whereabouts and urged the authorities to be open about his current health status. The Secretary General of ACT Wazalendo opposition political party, Ado Shaibu, said the situation was “not normal.”
“President Magufuli is a public figure who likes to appear in public,” he said. “Anything that happens to him is a matter of public concern.”
On Friday Tanzania’s top diplomat in Windhoek, Modestus Kipilimba told the Namibia Broadcasting Corporation that President Magufuli was in good health and working normally.
President Magufuli, 61, has been sceptical about the coronavirus disease and refused to follow other countries in the region in locking down their countries and economies in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease.
Tanzania stopped publishing figures about the disease last April and declared itself free of the disease but that position has been questioned after the deaths of senior government officials, including Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice president of the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago.