With no official news on the whereabouts of the Tanzanian president, the country's normally-active rumor mill is unnervingly quiet. Tanzanians are now ironically turning to Kenya for clues, says Jane Nyingi.
If a Kenyan wants to get the latest on a celebrity or political scandal, we can always rely on our neighbors.
Many Kenyans will tell you that Tanzanians have a penchant for gossip and that their social media influencers have notoriously loose tongues. Kenyans make up a good portion of the millions who follow their accounts almost religiously.
Very little of what happens in Kenya or Tanzania escapes these astute social commentators. Until now, apparently. Now that Tanzania's president is missing — a cause for real gossip, if ever there was one — everyone is suddenly tongue-tied.
President John Magufuli — AKA "The Bulldozer" — has not been seen in public since February 27. It was a Kenyan newspaper which first raised the alarm after reporting that an unnamed African leader was admitted to the private Nairobi Hospital.
For many, Magufuli immediately came to mind. The rumor mill was soon in full-swing — both among locals and around the world. All kinds of theories abound: Could Magufuli be suffering from COVID-19? Is he on a ventilator? Was he really flown to India for treatment? Or was he even transferred to a German hospital?
Like all modern mysterious, a hashtag soon emerged to help highlight the questions, rumors and clues. #whereIsMagufuli quickly started trending on Twitter, with Tanzanian opposition figures and members of the public alike calling on the government to explain the president's apparent disappearance.
After being bombarded by messages on Twitter, Tanzania's Vice-President Samia Suluhu eventually offered a hint of-sorts regarding the state of Magufuli's health. Speaking in Msata Town on Monday, she urged Tanzanians to not be alarmed by "rumors flying around," before saying it was "normal for humans to undergo [health] checks."
Her words appeared to contradict a statement from Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa last week, when he assured Tanzanians that Magufuli was in good health and disparaged the rumors that he is incapacitated.
Kenyans are as skeptical of both statements as Magufuli is of the coronavirus pandemic.
Amidst all this confusion, the Tanzanian sources that Kenyans like me would usually turn to have let me down. From the likes of UDAKUTZ ("Gossip TZ") to Jaymaudaku ("Jay the Gossiper") or Katibu Wa Wambea ("the Secretary General of Gossipers"). Not a single Tanzanian gossip account has dared utter a word about their missing leader.
Even the mother of all gossipers, Mange Kimambi, hasn't offered anything to her 5 million followers on Instagram. Kimambi, who currently resides in the US, is well-known as a fierce critic of Magufuli. Speaking out about the president now probably wouldn't cause her any more trouble than she's already in. If she returns to Tanzania, Kimambi is already risking jail time.
Exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu has said Magufuli is in India being treated for COVID-19, but he hasn't supported his claims with solid evidence
As a Kenyan, I'm left wondering whether Tanzania's social media commentators and journalists are worried about getting themselves in hot water, or if they view their silence as a form of patriotism.
The radio silence has prompted curious Tanzanians to look next door for news on their president. Tanzania's exiled opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, is the latest source of reports that Magufuli could be in India being treated for COVID-19. He claims the president's condition is serious. Lissu says Kenyan media and security sources tipped him off, but he is yet to provide any evidence.
As security forces loyal to Magufuli start warning and punishing Tanzanians for spreading information about him — or even for daring to use the #whereIsMagufuli hashtag — who can blame them for relying on Kenyans for information? The Magufuli administration has created a communication gap between the government and the people which has led to greater public mistrust.
Meanwhile, Kenyans are taking to Twitter and reminding their neighbors of a few of Magufuli's less than savory comments in the last year of the pandemic. There was that time when Magufuli called Kenya's lockdown "unnecessary." And remember when he urged Tanzanians hike the price of their produce destined for Kenyan markets to take advantage of the looming food shortage?
As the pandemic began to take its toll in East Africa, Kenya was quick to take the necessary precautions. Magufuli stubbornly refused. Imagine the irony, then, if he really did come knocking at a Nairobi hospital.