As local and international concern grows over the Tanzanian government’s handling of Covid-19, a major international law firm has written to the Commonwealth Secretariat, suggesting that the time had come to consider expelling Tanzania from the Commonwealth. International human rights specialist firm, Amsterdam & Partners, said this was because, due to the policies of its president, John Magufuli, Tanzania was not living up to its undertakings as a member of the Commonwealth. It had committed to fight against communicable disease but was instead endangering the lives of people in Tanzania and other Commonwealth countries. These concerns are shared by others as well and last weekend alone, both Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organisation also raised alarm about the effect of government policies on the health of Tanzanians.
There is one country in the world where the president made international headlines because it appears he might have ‘admitted’ that Covid-19 actual ‘exists’ after all. That country is Tanzania; that president is John Magufuli.
His equivocal ‘admission’ was made at a funeral on Friday. John Kijazi, head of the country’s civil service, had died a few days before. Speaking at his funeral, Magufuli spoke of the cause of death as being ‘the respiratory disease’.
Media reports from Tanzania said that during the funeral the president reiterated his earlier claims that prayer had saved the country from ‘this respiratory disease’. He added that, ‘this time round’ – a phrase that seems to concede that Covid-19 does exist, at least at the moment – prayer will again win out.
However, Magufuli made clear that no lockdown or other steps would be introduced by the government and that people of all faiths should increase their prayers instead.
A series of photographs on social media show Magufuli, a devout Catholic, at Mass on Sunday 21 February. He and members of his security detail are clearly not wearing masks while many in the congregation, including the priests concelebrating the mass, are all masked.
One Tanzanian observer of the religious event said afterwards that it was time the pope took action against those who were leading people to their death ‘through Covid denialism.’ ‘No politician should be allowed to use the Catholic Church to spread propaganda’, she Tweeted.
Later on Sunday, Magufuli said that his government ‘had not prevented people’ from wearing masks, while an official statement said that Magufuli encouraged ‘locally-made’ masks.
The people of Tanzania could be forgiven if they are extremely confused by the weekend messages from the president and his officials.
Since the end of April 2020, Magufuli’s government has released no Covid-related official statistics or other information about the state of the pandemic in Tanzania. He and government leaders have actively discouraged the use of masks, disputed the existence of Covid-19 and censored reports on the pandemic. Magufuli has also stated that Tanzania will not be ordering vaccine for the people of that country and that his people were not to be ‘used as guinea pigs’.
Earlier this week, Robert Amsterdam, founding partner of the international law firm, Amsterdam & Partners, wrote a strongly-worded letter to the Commonwealth Secretariat raising the impact of Magufuli’s denialism on Tanzania as well as on neighbouring countries, and suggesting that the situation was sufficiently serious for Tanzania to be expelled from the Commonwealth.
Amsterdam, whose firm represents Tundu Lissu, Magufuli’s most significant challenger for presidential office in last year’s election, said there were ‘severe warning signs of a mounting human rights and humanitarian crisis’ in the country.
‘We write to you to draw your urgent attention to the ongoing health and humanitarian emergency in Tanzania caused by Mr Magufuli’s refusal to recognise the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.’
Tanzania was a party to the Harare Declaration and the Commonwealth Charter, both of which entrenched development and health values including the fight against communicable disease, Amsterdam said.
Ginger and lemonade
Instead of respecting these undertakings, Magufuli had ‘ridiculed’ testing, declared that the virus had been ‘removed by the powers of God’, claimed his son was cured of the virus by drinking ginger and lemonade and ‘praised church congregations for the failure to wear masks’.
‘The government under Mr Magufuli is endangering the health of its citizens and depriving them of the right to accurate health information and essential treatments.’ He had further cast doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine with ‘particularly vitriolic statements’. In doing so, the government was also ‘endangering citizens of [other] members of the Commonwealth including Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi.’
Amsterdam asked that the Commonwealth secretariat consider whether, given these circumstances, ‘Tanzania’s continued membership in the Commonwealth is justified.’
‘When a government wilfully denies reality, casts doubt on vaccines and testing, and punishes those who report facts relating to the global pandemic inside the country, the international community must take action.’
The letter then refers to a number of ‘grave human rights abuses’ allegedly committed by the Tanzanian government in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
Over the weekend, other claims of rights abuses by the Tanzanian government were made, this time by the international organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW). In a detailed submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, HRW noted a ‘significant backslide in respect for the rule of law, political pluralism and human rights’ since Maguguli’s accession to power in 2015.
The HRW document is a report for the UN suggesting issues that should be raised with Tanzania ‘for clarity’ in relation to its adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. HRW listed health care as among the rights severely affected. It also noted that several media outlets had been fined for broadcasting news about Covid-19.
In another reaction to Tanzania’s strategy on Covid-19, director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said over the weekend that WHO had not received ‘any information’ about measures Tanzania was taking in response to the pandemic, despite having asked for statistics and other data.
‘This situation remains very concerning. I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases and share data. I also call on Tanzania to implement the public health measures that we know work in breaking the chains of transmission, and to prepare for vaccination.
‘A number of Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for Covid-19. This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and [to] protect populations in these countries and beyond.’
* 'A matter of justice', Legalbriefs, 23 February 2021