NAIROBI, Kenya – President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a populist leader who downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and diverted his country from democratic ideals, died on Wednesday in the port city of Dar es Salaam. He was 61 years old.
Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said in a short televised address that Mr Magufuli died of heart complications while being treated at Mzena Hospital. The announcement followed more than a week of intense speculation that Mr Magufuli was seriously ill with Covid-19 – reports that senior government officials had repeatedly denied.
Ms. Hassan did not disclose Mr. Magufuli’s underlying condition, but said he had suffered from chronic atrial fibrillation for more than a decade. She announced 14 days of national mourning and said flags would be flown nationwide on half employees.
Under the Tanzanian Constitution, Ms. Hassan will be sworn in as President to serve the remainder of the five-year term that Mr. Magufuli began when he won re-election last October. The move will make her the first female leader in Tanzania.
Mr. Magufuli, a trained chemist, was first elected on an anti-corruption platform in October 2015. He was initially praised for his efforts to strengthen the economy, curb wasteful spending, and improve Tanzania’s infrastructure.
But the Führer, popularly known as “the Bulldozer”, was soon accused of silencing dissent, suppressing freedom of expression and association, and enforcing laws that strengthened his Party of Revolution’s influence in power.
This was a sharp departure from the policies of its two immediate predecessors, who had promoted their East African nation as a peaceful, business-friendly democracy.
During his first term in office, Mr Magufuli’s government banned opposition rallies, revoked licenses from non-governmental organizations, and introduced laws that critics said suppressed independent reporting. He also said that pregnant girls are not allowed to go to school.
Right-wing groups accused his government of failing to conduct a credible investigation into the murders, kidnappings and persecution of journalists criticizing the government and opposition officials.
When Mr Magufuli was seeking a second term last fall, the authorities made it difficult for the opposition parties to campaign, froze the bank accounts of civil society groups, refused accreditation to election observers and journalists, and refused to allow opposition representatives to polling stations.
March 20, 2021, 1:42 p.m. ET
At least 10 people were killed on election day when violence broke out in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar after citizens said they saw soldiers casting marked ballots.
Mr Magufuli won this election with 84 percent of the vote on charges of widespread fraud and irregularities. Tundu Lissu, the main opposition candidate who ran against him, was accused of trying to overthrow the government and had to leave the country. He remains in exile in Belgium.
Last year, Mr Magufuli was heavily criticized at home and abroad for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He railed against masks and social distancing, promoted unproven remedies as cures, and said God helped the country eradicate the virus.
Tanzania has not disclosed any data on the coronavirus to the World Health Organization since April, reporting only 509 cases and 21 deaths, numbers that have been widely viewed with skepticism.
When the global introduction of vaccines began, Mr Magufuli stopped the Ministry of Health from securing doses for Tanzania.
“Vaccines don’t work,” he said in a speech to a maskless crowd in late January. “If the white man could develop vaccinations, vaccines against AIDS would have been brought. Vaccines against tuberculosis would have made it a thing of the past. Vaccines against malaria would have been found. Cancer vaccines would have been found. “
Such statements have been condemned by both the World Health Organization and the Roman Catholic Church in Tanzania. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, urged the Tanzanian government to prepare the infrastructure for the distribution of the doses, and wrote on Twitter: “Science shows that #VaccinesWork.”
In February, the US Embassy in Tanzania warned of a “significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases”, saying that “limited hospital capacity across Tanzania could lead to life-threatening delays in emergency medical care”.
Mr Magufuli’s death came just days after speculation that he was sick with the virus. The rumors began to swirl after the opposition person in exile, Mr Lissu, said the president had Covid-19 and was being treated at a hospital in neighboring Kenya.
Mr Lissu asked the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the president, who had not been seen publicly for almost two weeks. Mr. Magufuli did not attend a virtual summit for leaders of the East African regional bloc on February 27.
Tanzanian officials rejected the speculation, saying that Mr. Magufuli was working as usual.
After the announcement of Mr Magufuli’s death on Wednesday, the leader of the opposition party, Act Wazalendo, urged Tanzanians to show “patience and understanding” as the country undergoes a critical transition period.
“This is an unprecedented moment,” said opposition party leader Zitto Kabwe in a statement, “which will undoubtedly move us all in a very personal way.”
John Pombe Joseph Magufuli was born on October 29, 1959 in the Chato district in what is now northwestern Tanzania and was then known as Tanganyika. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Dar es Salaam and a PhD in chemistry from the same university in 2009, as advertised on the website of the President’s Office.
Before he became president, he was a member of the Tanzanian parliament and held a number of cabinet positions. He developed a reputation for fighting corruption while serving in cabinet positions including Minister for Land, Fisheries and Public Works.
Mr. Magufuli is survived by his wife, Janet, an elementary school teacher; and two children.