Working Paper
The Tanzanian state response to COVID-19

Why low capacity, discursive legitimacy, and twilight authority matter

Tanzania received significant global attention for its COVID-19 response during the first year of the pandemic. It did not share pandemic statistics, require masks, implement lockdowns, or close borders; it questioned testing and vaccine efficacy; and it emphasized traditional medicines as a cure.

The country’s response reflected a centralized, paternalistic state that emerged under postcolonial president Julius Nyerere and that stressed self-reliance and national unity. Although local officials did have some discretion to respond, the state’s top-down solutions, its low capacity, and the broader campaign against bureaucratic corruption curtailed the space in which they could act.

Nyerere’s legitimating discourse of nationalism, self-reliance, and paternalism further problematized the global cooperation needed to address the pandemic and limited the space in which civil society could challenge state actions.

The state’s struggle for authority in the face of nonstate actors such as opposition parties and civil society groups led it to embrace strategies such as electoral authoritarianism to maintain control, thereby obscuring transparency and accountability in the pandemic.

The focus on state capacity, legitimacy, and authority situate individual leaders’ actions in broader structural contexts, while also showing African state agency.