The news headlines following the passing of Tanzanian leader John Magufuli paint him in a negative light. This is not fair.
Magufuli became president in 2015 and won reelection to a second term following the October 2020 general elections. Tanzania is often hailed as one of the African continent’s most democratic, politically stable, and prosperous African nations.
A google search on Thursday, March 18, a day after it was announced that Magufuli, the leader of the East African nation, had passed away, yielded millions of results. I searched for the names Tanzania and John Magufuli.
At the top of the results, three headline stories, from The New York Times, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Cable News Network (CNN) announced the president’s passing with glaring alacrity. Four days later, on March 20, the trend of negative headlines about Magufli continued, with the Council on Foreign Relations echoing the covid storyline in its own headlines announcing the passage. The Wall Street Journal did something different, yet essentially cast him in a negative light all the same.
ABC News meanwhile was much more measured, saying the death of Magufuli drew both sorrow, as well as ire, from the community. The Voice of America evaded any of the Covid-19 tags in its own headline, which simply stated Magufuli had died.
True, Magufuli was a Covid-19 skeptic or denier. For that, he received the ire of critics at home and abroad, including media in the West. After his death, opposition parties in Tanzania quickly said Magufuli died from Covid-19. The official cause of death from the presidential office said he died from heart failure.
The Tanzanian covid situation, the denial about its existence by its leader, and refusals to impose restrictions, refusal of vaccines, was an exception to the rule in the African continent about the reality of coronavirus.
Magufuli himself had not been seen in public recently, which led to speculations about his whereabouts. Tanzanians who ventured to publicly question what was going on were reportedly arrested.
For an African leader who was seen as a champion of continental unity, much needed today more than ever before, and for someone who helped elevate the country’s economic and political fortunes, Covid-19 overshadowed everything.
On social media, Tanzanians celebrated Magufuli as a hero of continental unity and a son of the soil. Messages of condolence poured in from around the world, including messages from leaders of the East African Community, the African Union, and the United Nations.
A quick sampling of headlines from newspapers on the continent told a different story, entirely. Many, including The South African, avoided much of the tagging and negativity associated with Covid-19 and Tanzania. The Nation, a leading newspaper in Kenya described him as a bulldozer. An opinion piece in the Modern Ghana newspaper blasted Magufuli as “Another Foolish African Leader,” citing his denial of Covid-19. But most of these are in stark contrast to headlines about the same subject, crafted by journalists in American newsrooms.
Magufuli was quickly succeeded by vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan, who was sworn in as president on March 19.