The last time President John Magufuli was seen in public was at an event on 27th February. This is most unusual for a President who is usually very visible, and he never misses going to church where after the religious service, he is known to deliver speeches to the congregation. Last week local journalists rightly so began asking about the President’s whereabouts and were met with silence. The rumour on social media was Magufuli had himself contracted COVID-19 and was seriously unwell. Soon after, opposition leader Tundu Lissu told the BBC that the President was being treated for coronavirus in Kenya. If true, God must have a pretty dark sense of humour, considering President Magufuli has advocated the power of prayer to fight the coronavirus.
Rightly, so activists, opposition leaders, local journalists, and concerned Tanzanians (myself included) turned to social media to ask #whereismagufuli? The communication vacuum continues with no response to these alleged rumours. The only direct response has come from Vice President Samia Suluhu, who reportedly said today, “it’s quite normal for a person’s body to be indisposed and contract the flu or develop a fever… this is the time for Tanzanians to be united through prayer”. Either Magufuli’s government cannot see the irony in such a statement, or they know something about prayer that us mere mortals don’t.
In a dark turn of events, over the weekend, the authorities have started clamping down on anyone who asks #whereismagufuli. Chadema reported a 73-year-old ordinary citizen had been jailed in Tarime. Meanwhile, the Minister of Information, Innocent Bashungwa has warned local journalists and media houses of grave consequences if they spread unverified information. In Magufuli’s Tanzania, there is no freedom of speech whether you’re an ordinary citizen or a journalist, and this is why I am calling on Western Journalists and Media Houses to give voice to the situation in Tanzania.
This matters because you will help bring the situation into the public light, and one hopes that our governments will have no choice but to intervene. To anyone who thinks this is imperialistic, I say to you as a Tanzanian and as someone who fears how people are being silenced that we want the west to call out Magufuli. Access to information is a fundamental human right, be it for the people who voted for you to ask about your whereabouts or in fighting COVID-19.
I, therefore, say to journalists outside of Tanzania, whilst Magufuli is silencing your colleagues, lend them your voice.