Salient Lessons To Learn From Tanzanian President’s Death

By Isaac Asabor
Late President John Magufuli
Late President John Magufuli
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Since the death of the president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, who died at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at 61 as was announced in a televised address on Wednesday by the country’s Vice President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, there is no denying the fact that there are some salient lessons to be learnt by other African leaders yet alive.

Against the foregoing backdrop, it is not an exaggeration to say that the first lesson to be learnt is the need for African leaders to be transparent about their health status. Even if the news of his death was broken by the Vice President where it was disclosed that he died of a heart ailment, the fact that his health status was for close to decade shrouded in secrecy, that many Tanzanians at the moment believed he died of COVID-19 complications.

It is also expedient to say that the announcement, which came after government denials that the president was ill as pressure mounted to explain his almost three-week absence from public view sparked panic and rumors that had it that he was seeking treatment abroad from Covid-19.

In its reaction to the rumors, the government got several people arrested for spreading fake news over his ill-health on social media. As condolences poured in from abroad, Tanzanian’s main opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who was shot 16 times in a 2017 assassination attempt and exiled in Belgium, described Magufuli’s death as “poetic justice”, insisting his sources said he had succumbed to Covid-19.

At this juncture, it is expedient to say that the actual cause of his death is shrouded in mystery while public opinion has it that he died of Covid-19, while another rumor mills had it that he died of a "heart condition" known as chronic atrial fibrillation characterized by an abnormal heartbeat, which he had suffered from for a decade, at a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

At this juncture, it is not an exaggeration to say that the guesstimation about what led to his death should not have arisen if the state of his health was clearly disclosed before the time of his death. Against the foregoing backdrop, there is no denying the fact that it is a salient lesson to learn from.

There is no denying the fact that the people, under a democratic leadership, are naturally curious about the health of their president, and any sign of illness or frailty gets subjected to intense public scrutiny. Though there has been opposition to such expectation but it speaks well of a democratic system. African countries have a notorious history with truth and disclosure about the health status of their president.

Again, it cannot be erroneous to say in this context that there are no legal requirements imposed on the president to inform the public about his or her health. However, it would have been better, and transparent for good leadership if an ailing president have eschewed being secretive with details about his or her health as peoples’ socio-economic wellbeing are somewhat tied to his performance as a president. As can easily be fathomed out from the foregoing perspective, a sick president cannot in any way be on a good pedestal to deliver quality leadership. It would be recalled that America, which most African countries copied their democratic system of government from have had Barack Obama released full details of his health checks, including one in March 2016, shortly before he was due to leave office. George W. Bush also shared detailed medical reports.

Despite the fact that former American President, Donald Trump, was for the umpteenth time criticized for not being forthcoming with details about his health, he no doubt availed Americans the report from his doctor concerning his health status in June, 2020, which said Trump “remains healthy,” also remains obese as measured by his body-mass index, and had reduced his total cholesterol level to 167, within the normal range, by taking 40 milligrams daily of the statin rosuvastatin, more widely known under the brand name Crestor. But an unannounced, and still mostly unexplained, visit to a Washington-area hospital in November 2019 still prompts speculation that he had a health problem. Trump, perhaps inadvertently, fueled that speculation with a Sept. 1 tweet denying “having suffered a series of mini-strokes.”

To this end, it is expedient to say that in as much as Magufuli left behind both enviable and unenviable legacies, it would not be wrong to learn from his mistake of not disclosing his health status which is at the moment a cause for concern to Tanzanians. At the moment, it is difficult to affirm that he died of COVID-19 or heart attack as his health in the last 10 years has all along been trailed by speculations until he died on Wednesday.

In fact, unarguably due to the ambiguity of his health status, Tanzania's main opposition leader demanded information on the health of the late President John Magufuli, who was described to be a prominent COVID-19 sceptic whose absence from public view brought speculation that he was receiving medical treatment abroad. The mere question led to arrests of some outspoken Tanzanians as the government moved to contain the rumors.

Again, African political leaders should eschew the habit of being skeptical about the reality of COVID-19 pandemic. While alive, Magufuli had for months insisted that the virus no longer exists in Tanzania and had been fended off by prayer. He refused to wear a facemask or take lockdown measures.

"Vaccines are not good. If they were, then the white man would have brought vaccines for HIV/AIDS," he said earlier this year. Last year, he dismissed coronavirus testing kits, which he said had returned positive results on a goat and pawpaw fruit. Political leaders should learn from his mistake of being skeptical about the reality of COVID-19. The reason cannot be farfetched as high ranking political leaders can influence others, particularly the gullible, to equally resort to being skeptical over the pandemic.

Another Magufuli’s mistake to learn from is that of starting well, and not ending well. It is a common leadership trajectory which most African leaders delight in following. For instance, he was reputed to have started well when he first entered the presidency in 2015, and was said to have gained worldwide acclaim for his no-nonsense approach to fighting corruption and imprudent government spending. But as he settled into office, his true political disposition that is archetypical of African authoritarians and “the bulldozers” of human rights, visibly manifested.

Finally, a most salient lesson he left as a legacy is by dying in a hospital in Dar es Salam, rather than in foreign land. It goes to show that he actually sought medical help locally in Tanzania without resorting to embark on medical pilgrimage as most African leaders are wont to.

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