Four people have been arrested in Tanzania accused of circulating claims that President John Magufuli is in ill health.
Magufuli has not been seen in public for two weeks, sparking unconfirmed reports from opposition leaders that he is unwell and incapacitated.
A man from the Kinondoni area of Dar es Salaam was the first to be arrested on Saturday. The BBC reported on Monday that three more people have been arrested.
“There are a lot more who have been spreading false statements. We will arrest them all,” Regional Police Commissioner Ramadhani Kingai vowed.
Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa last Friday denied opposition claims that Magufuli had been airlifted to India, blaming the narrative on “hateful” Tanzanians living abroad.
“Tanzanians should be at peace. Your president is around, healthy, working hard,” he said in a speech in the southern Njobe region. “To spread rumours that he is sick is just an outcome of hate.”
Magufuli was busy at work indoors reviewing files, Majaliwa said, adding that he spoke to him by phone on Friday morning.
“I have decided to say this to give hope to Tanzanians that our president is around,” he said. “If he were sick, would I talk to him on the phone? He sent his greetings to you.”
Magufuli, 61, is Africa’s most prominent coronavirus sceptic. He has not been seen in public since February 27.
Tanzanian opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who left for Belgium after disputing his election defeat to Magufuli last year, has said the president was flown to the private Nairobi Hospital in neighbouring Kenya and then to India in a coma.
The prime minister’s remarks, along with similar comments from Tanzania’s ambassador in Namibia, Modestus Kipilimba, were the first official reactions since concerns surfaced at the start of last week.
“He’s OK, he’s going on with his job,” Kipilimba told Namibia’s state broadcaster NBC.
Neither NBC nor Tanzania’s state broadcaster showed video of Magufuli in their reports.
Kenya’s Nation newspaper had on Wednesday cited unidentified political and diplomatic sources saying that an African leader, which it did not name, was being treated for Covid-19 on a ventilator at Nairobi Hospital.
The hospital has said nothing.
John Mnyika, general secretary of Lissu’s Chadema party, said Tanzanians had a right to know more.
Nicknamed “The Bulldozer”, Magufuli has frustrated the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the pandemic by playing down the threat from Covid-19, saying God and remedies such as steam inhalation would protect Tanzanians.
The former chemistry teacher has mocked coronavirus tests, denounced vaccines as part of a Western conspiracy to take Africa’s wealth, and opposed mask-wearing and social distancing.
Tanzania stopped reporting coronavirus data in May last year when it had reported 509 cases and 21 deaths, according to the WHO, which has urged the government to be more transparent.
Magufuli, from northwest Tanzania, was first elected president in 2015 and has faced accusations from Western countries and opposition parties of eroding democracy.
He denies that.
According to the constitution, 61-year-old Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan would take over for the rest of the five-year term should the president be unable to carry out his duties.
Born in Zanzibar, Suluhu has studied economics in England and worked for the United Nations’ World Food Programme as well as holding various government posts prior to becoming Tanzania’s first female vice-president in 2015 under newly elected Magufuli. – Reuters