The Chronicle Gambia

The Folly Of Nonchalance: African Heads Of State And The Covid-19 Pandemic

President Yoweri Kaguta Musevenio, (R) with late Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli, (L) after a bilateral meeting at the Arusha State Lodge, Tanzania on Tuesday 30th February 2016. President Museveni together with the East African Heads of State are meeting in Arusha for the 17th Ordinary Summit. (PPU PHOTO)
Toyin Falola
President of the Consortium of Pan-African University Press

Many scholars have argued that colonialism was the single most effective factor in the development of African nations. There are claims that African civilizations and empires thrived long before the advent of the colonialists and that if things have taken a sour turn after the independence of African states, then the reason for the degradation must be colonization.

There is no doubt that the colonization of African states and Africans’ dehumanisation through slavery and forced labour are big contributors to the continent’s now stunted development. However, the fact remains that the greatest contributor(s) to Africa’s apparent stagnation on the ladder of development are Africans themselves—both the leaders and the led. While most African leaders attack national resources in a termite-esque manner, the citizens also fail to hold their leaders accountable. As long as they get some peanuts from the administration of any one leader, the people are satisfied.

Many African leaders’ mindset and attitude towards development have left these countries in shambles in different sectors, including education and health. It is sad that as of 2014, only four African countries—The Gambia, Swaziland, Ethiopia, and Malawi—met the 15% budget benchmark for the health sector, as agreed at Abuja in 2001. There are various reasons for African leaders’ failure to pay attention to their countries’ healthcare systems. However, the most common is that these leaders and their close-knit circle have access to world-class healthcare– Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and his London visits and Patrice Talon’s Paris-bound medical escapades readily come to mind.

The emergence of a never-before-seen virus adversely rocked the world and threw both developed and developing countries into chaos. The COVID-19 virus started as a Wuhan affair in December 2019 and became a pandemic in the early months of 2020. With the spread of the virus’s tentacles to virtually all countries, the strength of a country’s threw healthcare system in the face of this novel virus no longer had significant importance. Governments into confusion, meetings were frequently called, scientists resumed round-the-clock duties at laboratories, and the race to find a cure or a vaccine for the mutating virus began.

The COVID-19 pandemic humbled everyone. It took us all and threw us into the same basket, putting all countries of the world and people (whether rich or poor) on the same pedestal. The pandemic brought new perspectives to our belief in the huge advancement of developed countries. Before now, some nations appeared untouchable, almost impregnable. The pandemic was proof that we can never be too prepared. This is not about how the wealth of many Chief Executive Officers of technology-related businesses skyrocketed. No. It is not about how some companies emerged into the light of relevance, but rather about how COVID-19 was not a respecter of persons. Some of the world’s most powerful people caught the virus; it was not peculiar to developing countries. Donald Trump contracted the virus in the United States, and so did Jonathan Spence, who lived in a largely unpopulated town.

The virus was stumbling, and it was made worse then because there was no vaccine for it. There were no overseas hospitals for the leaders to run away to for treatment, abandoning the citizens. For once in a long while, the leaders had a first-hand experience of the efforts, or otherwise, that they had been putting into their healthcare sector. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the period cases peaked, proved that African leaders are not untouchable. Some African leaders contracted the COVID-19 virus and lost their lives to the virus, while others recovered from it. This piece profiles African heads of state who fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it concludes with a look into lessons that could be garnered from experience.


 The Folly of Burundi’s Nkurunziza and His Fate in the Hands of Death

Pierre Nkurunziza, former President of Burundi, died of what diplomatic reports claimed to be cardiac arrest. Nonetheless, there are strong indications and reports that he died of COVID-19, as his wife was being treated in Kenya for the virus when he died. These reports are believable because Nkurunziza’s reaction to the COVID-19 virus was a mixture of sheer folly and over-reliance on his religious beliefs. While his counterparts in the West and East ran helter-skelter, seeking ways to protect their citizens from the pandemic, and while some of his African colleagues put measures in place to protect their citizens, Nkurunziza was quoted to have said the COVID-19 pandemic could not affect Burundi because he is of the Christian faith.

President Nkurunziza did not put restrictive measures in place to combat the airborne virus. He also discouraged his citizens from adhering to COVID-19 protocols. Businesses were allowed to open, and sports events were not restricted. To crown it all, Burundi held an election on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Imagine the extent of a president’s folly and total disregard for the protection of his citizens, for him to have held a physical election during the pandemic! Did Nkurunziza stop holding an election, leaving schools open, and allowing people to run about all in the name of sports events? No. He even took a bold step further by banning officials of the World Health Organization from his country. What was the offence of these officials? They questioned his way of handling the COVID-19 virus.

Nkurunziza might have started seeing the COVID-19 virus in a new light when his wife and Burundian First Lady, Reverend Pastor Denise Nkurunziza, got infected with the virus. She was flown to Kenya for treatment while her husband stayed back in Burundi. Whereas the First Lady recovered, Pierre Nkurunziza died on Monday, June 8, 2020, losing his life to the COVID-19 virus.

Tanzania’s John Magufuli: COVID-19 Skepticism and Death from “Cardiac Arrest”

Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has died aged 61.

John Magufuli’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was riddled with scepticism, ridicule, and nonchalance. To him, the COVID-19 pandemic was not as serious as the rest of the world claimed. He strongly believed that the leaders of a “New World Order” painted the virus as more severe and deadly than it is. More so, he believed in the potency of prayers and was quoted to have said on national television as saying that the COVID-19 virus has no place in the bodies of prayerful people and that the Tanzanian laboratories were pumping the country’s COVID-19 figures with fake numbers, thereby recording a false rise in the number of Tanzanian cases.

In February, John Magufuli stopped making public appearances, sparking suspicions that he had contracted the COVID-19 virus. There were insinuations by the opposition in Tanzania that the president had contracted the virus and was being treated in Kenya. These claims were debunked by Kassim Majaliwa, the country’s Prime Minister. Prime Minister Majaliwa said that the president was not sick, that those claiming the president was sick were conspiracy theorists—Tanzanians living outside the country who wanted to create division among Tanzanians at home. Two weeks after, President Magufuli met his fate at the hands of death.

John Magufuli’s death and the Prime Minister’s initial diplomatic untruthfulness are strong indicators that the President most likely died of the COVID-19 virus alleged by the opposition. Given his reaction to the pandemic, Magufuli dying of the COVID-19 virus would not be a surprising and unexpected thing. Tanzania does not have an active report of the COVID-19 pandemic and the number of cases in the country since May 2020, and the country made no plans to get its citizens vaccinated against the virus. John Magufuli made ridiculous claims of Tanzania being totally cleansed of the COVID-19 virus after three days’ fasting. He also posited that other African countries would be subjected to making purchases from Tanzania in years to come because of the restrictive measures they put in place during the pandemic’s heated period in 2020, affecting their economies Tanzania did not do. John Magufuli’s death is not as painful as the scores of the muffled and incorrectly recorded deaths of Tanzanians who showed symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.

Ivory Coast’s Amadou Gon Coulibaly: Recovery, then Death; A COVID-19 Death?

Amadou Gon Coulibaly, President Alassane Ouattara’s handpicked successor died in July 2020

Amadou Gon Coulibaly, Ivory Coast’s former Prime Minister and then favourite for the country’s October 2020 presidential elections, died in July 2020, a week after his return from France. Coulibaly was said to have travelled to France for medical treatment, which lasted for two months. Upon his return, he self-isolated, following his contact with a carrier of the COVID-19 virus. However, Gon Coulibaly announced that he tested negative for the virus on two occasions. It was then a thing of shock when Coulibaly died some days after claiming that his two test results for the virus were negative.

Coulibaly’s death raised dust as to the veracity of his test results. Did he truly test negative for the virus? Was the announcement just a move to calm Ivorians and so he could continue to make public appearances? Could he have died of COVID-19 days after having tested negative for the virus? Did he perhaps die of something else? Did he die of the disease he was nursing earlier, the one that took him to France? The cause of Coulibaly’s death remains shrouded in mystery. However, there are strong inclinations that he did not die of COVID-19, except he did not test negative as he claimed.

 Kolélas’ Charge, Kolélas’ Death: Another African Political Icon Bows to the COVID-19 Virus

Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, the main opposition leader for incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso, has died of COVID-19 complications. Diabetic Koélas, who was being flown to France for treatment after his Thursday complaints of malaria, died due to the deadly virus that has claimed many of his political counterparts. Some hours before his death, a video clip surfaced on Twitter where Kolélas was seen charging his country people to go out, vote, and fight for their democracy, even as he was fighting for his own life.

Congo’s opposition candidate Guy Parfait Kolelas died a day after elections that saw Sassou Nguesso reelected

Sadly, Kolélas lost the battle for his life a day after the Sunday presidential elections, and no one can tell yet if the people won the fight for their democracy or not. Kolélas’death has dealt a huge blow to the formidability of the Congo-Brazzavillian opposition, as he had been the main challenger of President Nguesso for about eleven years. Kolélas, who was once a top-ranking minister in the government, left his ministerial position to challenge the seemingly autocratic rule of President Nguesso, who has been in power for 31 years and will most likely be the winner of the recently concluded presidential elections.

What could have caused Parfait Kolélas’ death? While we cannot fully ascertain that Parfait Kolélas was negligent of the COVID-19 safety precautions, something is certain. Though Congo-Brazzaville has had more than 9000 cases of COVID-19, the citizens have been acting as if the virus was completely gone from their country. The government allowed for open-air campaigns for the presidential polls, and some of President Nguesso’s supporters were spotted on Sunday breaching the COVID-19 safety measures of wearing nose masks and social distancing. Consequently, Parfait Kolélas could have contracted the cause of his death at one of his campaigns.


COVID-19 is a virus that took the world by surprise. For weeks, many countries did not know how to respond to the virus. However, countries in the West and East soon began to make aggressive all-round assaults to combat the virus. If anyone thought that African countries and their leaders would have taken a cue from that, then such a person was gravely mistaken. Perhaps, we did not consider the virus as something that would be as serious as it eventually became. As of February 2020, many African countries still saw the virus as a plague of faraway lands, coupled with speculations that the virus could not survive in the tropics.

African leaders cannot be completely blamed for their initial lackadaisical attitude towards the virus. In matters of health, African countries follow in the footsteps of their other-world counterparts. It is the same reason Official Development Assistance to African countries is on the rise. However, much remains to be said about several African leaders’ continued attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many African countries were slow to implement preventive lockdown measures. International travel bans were not put in place as and when due. There were misgivings as to restricting travellers from foreign countries due to the weakness of many African economies, the inability of African nations to run for long with everything on lockdown, and because many of them depend on foreign currencies for economic boosting. African leaders still journeyed to COVID-19 infested countries for meetings, and it was on one of such journeys that Abba Kyari, then Chief of Staff to Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, contracted the COVID-19 virus, which led to his death.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still touted to be around, though many countries have gone back to normalcy. There are claims that Africa’s return to a state of stability will be slow and most likely torturous, which is not untrue, as some African countries have entered recession in the past year. It will be said in some quarters that we did our part as a continent; however, we should know that our attitude towards COVID-19 would have led to far graver consequences elsewhere. Our response as a continent to the current COVID-19 pandemic is nothing to write home about. While we do not pray for another world-shaking pandemic, nothing stops us from preparing ahead for a similar situation. On that note, here are some takeaways for the African continent from the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Life is the most important human element. It is what must be protected first. Based on this, African countries should no longer hesitate to put life-protecting measures in place in the event of an epidemic or pandemic. Nigeria’s Dr. Stella Adadevoh and her heroic deeds during the 2014 Ebola virus come to mind. It is such a wake-up move to combat any threatening virus that we need as a continent.
  • Africa should be united in its fight. During Africa’s fight against the COVID-19 virus, Tanzania and Burundi did not fly emulative flags. We should not have cases of some African heads of state, making ridiculous claims when their counterparts are busy fighting to limit the impact of a pandemic or an epidemic. Ignorance cloaked in fanatic religiosity can be deadly, as proven by the deaths of John Magufuli and Pierre Nkurunziza.
  • Situations are peculiar to countries, but a unified front is always more effective. While it is true that the COVID-19 virus affected countries in varying degrees depending on individual peculiarities, the fact remains that when African Heads of State shared ideas and brainstormed on the African Union and Economic Community of West African States platforms, they could come up with better ways to combat the pandemic on our continent. As cliché as the saying is that two heads are better than one is, it still holds in many ways.
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