Home column - Friday COVID-19 and fate of sceptical political leaders (2), By Isaac N Obasi

COVID-19 and fate of sceptical political leaders (2), By Isaac N Obasi

Late President of Tanzania, John Magufuli

The first part of this discussion started with a focus on five political leaders (across three regions of the world) who were sceptical about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It also looked at the damaging consequences of their actions and inactions. These five notable political leaders are the former president of the United States of America, Donald Trump; the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro; the president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador; the late president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, and the late president of Tanzania John Magufuli. We noted that all of them jettisoned science in their management of the coronavirus, and were brazenly driven by their selfish political and economic interests in the management of COVID-19. And very painfully, they and their citizens paid (and are still paying) heavily for their actions with many lives now lost to the virus. 

Again, for three of these leaders, their countries have broken some unenviable records. The US for example, served for a very long time, as the world’s epicenter of the pandemic, and still currently has the highest number of COVID-19 infections as well as deaths (i.e. 555,000 as of 7 April 2021 by John Hopkins University records) in the world. Brazil follows the US with the second-highest number of infections as well as deaths (i.e. 332,000 as of 7 April 2021) in the world. Presently, Brazil serves as the new epicentre of the pandemic in the world (See ABC News via https://abcnews.go.com). As we write, it has just recorded over 4,000 deaths within 24-hours for the first time according to the BBC News (See https://www.bbc.com). Mexico currently has the third highest number of deaths (i.e. 204,000) as of 7 April 2021 by the John Hopkins University records. 

For many analysts who have been following closely these three countries since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, most of these infections and deaths were avoidable as they were products of huge and costly mistakes by their leaders. We will now wrap up this discussion with a focus on the remaining two of the leaders, namely late president of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza and late president of Tanzania John Magufuli. 

As a serving president in 2020, Pierre Nkurunziza while unconcerned about managing the coronavirus, said that the pandemic was “transmitted by air” and that God has “cleared the coronavirus from Burundian skies” (See Anadolu Agency via www.aa.com.tv). Among other wrong actions he took was the expulsion of four officials of the World Health Organisation (WHO) from his country by 15 May 2020, and declared them persona non grata (See VOA News, May 14, 2020 via https://www.voanews.com). He held political campaigns involving large crowds of supporters in total disregard of the safety protocols of COVID-19. His government did not make any serious arrangements for testing of citizens against the virus, as it paid lip service to the testing problem. Furthermore, there was under-reporting of cases of infections and deaths, many got infected after attending huge crowds of political rallies. 

Above all, Nkurunziza was using the name of God to rationalise his COVID-19 wrong policy actions and inactions, an act that constituted a glaring abuse of the exercise of faith. It was ironical that this authoritarian leader invoked faith in God as only the means of fighting the pandemic rather than adopting concrete actions or at best combining faith with concrete actions. His contradictory actions were blatantly an act of deception. Here was a political leader who was involved in wide scale repression of political opponents and clampdown of popular protests by citizens opposed to his third term bid, calling God as if he was a sincere and devout follower of His. Granted that God is so merciful to all, He is also a God of justice as no one has a licence to misuse His name deliberately and hypocritically for selfish interests. It was not surprising that the same virus he claimed God had cleared in the skies touched the ground and took his life. 

His behaviour was typical of politicians belonging to his school of ‘reactionary populism’. These days they are found in many countries of the world deceiving their people for political gains. Religion has steadily and increasingly become an instrument for the promotion of selfish and sectional political interests, as well as expansion of political empire and domination of competing ethnic and religious groups.

The case of the late president of Tanzania, John Magufuli, was not quite different. Here was a president who also ‘downplayed the severity of the virus’, was very suspicious of COVID-19 testing results, and at a time said “that people were getting false positive results” (By Chrispin Mwakideu, Deutsche Welle DW, March 17, 2021, via www.dw.com). Furthermore, he did not order a lockdown when other countries considered it necessary to do so, but rather he declared “that Tanzania would remain open for business”, saying that “we Tanzanians have not locked ourselves down, and I don’t expect to announce even a single day that we are implementing a lockdown because our God is still alive, and he will continue protecting us Tanzanians” (via www.dw.com). Yes correctly said God is alive and will continue to be alive, but we must do our own part of the work He gave us authority to do.

It was on record that the WHO pleaded with him to allow the reporting of COVID-19 cases but to no avail. And to show how wrong he was, Aljazeera News reported that his successor, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, has said three days ago that it is not proper to ignore the coronavirus pandemic. This Aljazeera rightly said signals “a shift in approach from the COVID-scepticism of her late predecessor John Magufuli”, who downplayed the disease (Aljazeera News, 6 April 2021 via http://.www.aljazeera.com.cdn.amproject.org. Before he died Magufuli warmed Tanzanians against COVID-19 vaccines thereby following the path of late Burundian president who was the first leader in Africa to repudiate coronavirus vaccines. Today both of them are no more. What lesson(s) can we learn from the irrational skepticism of both leaders?  

The first lesson is from the Holy Scripture as some of these politicians who use the name of God know very little about His Word. At creation, God gave man power to continue His work of creation and to conquer and dominate the Earth. And as Psalm 8: 1, 4-6 went further to elucidate:

How great is your name, O Lord our God through all the earth!

What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god; with glory and honour you crowned him,

gave him power over the works of your hand, and put all things under his feet (emphasis here)

Those who invoke the name of God on anything (like our two late African leaders with respect to coronavirus) should always trust God that He has given man the knowledge and power to develop useful things including COVID-19 vaccine to free man from such pandemic scourge. In fact, many faithful children of God prayed seriously for a vaccine to be developed and when it came they thanked and glorified God. That is the right attitude. And this to me is the appropriate use of Godly faith. 

Secondly, the controversy between faith and science (as to whether they are compatible) has been settled long ago. Both are mutually-re-enforcing. God Himself is the greatest scientist. So, no man should be grandstanding with the name of God in a hypocritical manner of invoking His name and at the same time rejecting His creation through man who was made in His image and likeness.

The last lesson is that political leaders, influencers in society and indeed all men and women, should apply wisdom in using the name of God in their pursuit of good things of life. Like Mr. Babatunde Fashola (Honourable Minister of Works and Housing) rightly observed in a Channels programme Hard Copy in 2019 ‘there is too much God in our daily conversation’ in Nigeria, which to me is an abuse of the name of God. And as he also aptly said, “most people want God to do everything for them without playing their own part. There is enough work for God to do”. God says, ‘Work and pray’. But do we do the work? God didn’t make money, it is people who make money. So, you need to go and work for money.’ (see https://phenomenal.com.ng/2019/10/there-is-too-much-god-in-our-daily-discussions-fashola/). 

How I wish late Pierre Nkurunziza and late John Magufuli applied Mr. Fashola’s advice in fighting COVID-19. Our concluding advice here therefore, is that people should use God’s name in the most appropriate and reverential manner, and not for selfish reasons. Nigerians are guilty of this misuse even with impunity.          

•Prof. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].  

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