I join my president to pray for my country

The misguided rhetoric of Tanzanian President John Magufuli guides the country's response to COVID-19.

President John Magufuli, left, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in August 2019. Image credit the Government of South Africa, via Flickr.

Tanzania’s response to COVID-19 has been criticized for its mixing of “faith and science.” In mid-March, while many countries across the world suspended all public gatherings, including religious services, Tanzania’s government announced that mosques and churches would remain open. At the time, President Magufuli, speaking at a church in Dodoma, said churches and mosques had to remain open as that is where “real healing” takes place. However, a handful of religious leaders took the opposite move. Severine Niwemugizi, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rulenge Ngara Diocese and Bishop Benson Bagonza of the Lutheran church, Karagwe Diocese announced to cancel all church gatherings. A similar move was announced by Sheikh Said Haroun who leads a mosque in the Northern city of Arusha. Another mosque was temporarily closed in Dar es Salaam but reopened following the president’s remarks which are quoted below. In his address in the swearing in of the new Minister for Home Affairs on May 3, President Magufuli (acting as if he is the country’s High Priest) expressed his disappointment at the path taken by these religious leaders, which he saw as human fear caused by lack of faith:

Let us disregard those who are trying to frighten us because they are useless. But let us continue praying to our God. God exist! There are even religious leaders who have forgotten God whom they have been preaching to us every day … and this is this the time to test the faith of the leaders we have, even the religious leaders.

On April 16th, the President implored Tanzanians to dedicate the next three days to praying. A few days later, the Ministry of Health announced a day-long, mass prayer meeting against COVID-19 in Dar es Salaam. Prime Minister, Majaliwa Kassim Majaliwa, was a guest of honor.

For this, Magufuli was heavily criticized. For example, journalist Khalifa Said tweeted: “if any Tanzanian dies of COVID-19, President Magufuli will be held responsible … Tanzanians elected a president, not a pastor or a sorcerer.”

There is empirical evidence for a link between religious identity and partisan politics. In societies where religion (including traditions) plays a central role in public life and can sway elections, especially during a crisis, populist leaders can exploit people’s deeply held beliefs and anxieties. From the east to the west, populist leaders are rising: Narendra Modi in India (from 2014) and Donald Trump in the US (from 2016). They both combine religious discourse and nationalism in their mission to make their countries “great again.” Modi embraces Hindu nationalism—the idea of a “pure” Hindu nation. In the US, it is usually done by declaring support for Israel (the Holy Land) and identifying with Christian pastors (mainly Evangelicals). On April 12, during an interview with Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, President Trump declared that he wanted churches packed on Easter all over the country.

Africa is not exceptional. Mixing or substituting science with religious beliefs is not uncommon. An African head of state, Yaya Jammeh (then president of Gambia) once claimed to cure AIDS while Mbeki’s presidency in South Africa (1999-2008) was marked with the politics of AIDS denialism, which included him cynically using traditional leaders. Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, despite his history as a socialist, drew on links with Mourides when he wanted to stay in power. His ministers, regardless of their religion, have to go before the Mauride Khalife general to solicit his prayer each time that they undertook an important state mission.

Magufuli appears to be motivated by political expediency. He is neither that ignorant nor a devout disciple of Jesus Christ; rather he is simply a politician seeking political survival. He employs religious rhetoric strategically to inspire or support certain policy positions. Magufuli knows that though the constitution declares that Tanzania is a secular state, its citizens are not. Many Tanzanians are religious. Consequently, Tanzanian politicians utilize religious symbols, morals and narratives to influence religiously minded voters. This is a strategy to manufacture legitimacy by tapping into collective frustrations (poverty, unemployment, ignorance) over the inefficacy of state institutions to deliver basic goods and services. Magufuli often uses religious terminology in his political campaigning. Hence, his politics has become quasi-religious as the struggle between the people (the poor) and the corrupt elites or any other human or non-human forces like coronavirus is portrayed as a war of redemption between “the side of the Devil and the side of God.” Still, the prime motivation is clearly populism, not religion.

This is in stark contrast to Tanzania under Nyerere. That government’s “pro-people” policies focused on fighting poverty, diseases and ignorance. “We should treat a peasant as a god,” Nyerere used to say. Three decades of neoliberal policies have not only reversed achievements of the after-independence period but have created new problems. Land and labor dispossession in rural and urban areas respectively have left many in a state of hopelessness. While there are pockets of resistance here and there, the public has also internalized the practices of neoliberal capitalism. For example, the now common adage Kazi na sala (work and prayers) insinuates that the returns of one’s labor by itself isn’t enough. This precariousness has compelled people to seek divine interventions for their financial and health problems: faith provides solace in such circumstances. There has been a proliferation of neo-Pentecostal churches that preach financial prosperity (or the “wealth and health gospel”).

On February 1, 2020, at least twenty people (including children) died and over a dozen were injured in a stampede during a church service at a stadium in Moshi in northern Tanzania as they rushed to get anointed with mafuta ya upako (anointing oil). This reminded me of an earlier incident, when in 2011, tens of thousands of people from all over the country and from neighboring states flocked to Samunge, Loliondo (a village in Arusha, Tanzania) for a miracle dose (Kikombe cha Babu) administered by Ambilikile Mwasapile. Ambilikile claimed that the dose provided cure for several diseases, including diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV. Cabinet ministers (some in the high office today) were among Ambilikile’s customers.

To a religious society like ours, any mention of God evokes euphoria in the hearts and minds of the believers. Magufuli knows that. His call to prayers is simply rhetoric to win the hearts and minds of the religious voters and obscures the state’s incapacity to handle the public health problem. After all, this is an election year. Since his election in 2015, Magufuli has aligned himself with the “Servants of God” (or religious elite) including a controversial Bishop Josephat Gwajima (popular on social media) and Bishop Zacharia Kakobe, both of whom were once pro-opposition. Religious leaders command followers, and their word is synonymous to God’s, at least to those who follow them uncritically. Hence, for Magufuli, buying into religious rhetoric is a good selling strategy for political expediency: On May 10, Bishop Josephat Gwajima tweeted “Those opposing the President are the agents of Satan.”

Further Reading