DAR ES SALAAM, 17 March 2021 – Tanzanian President, John Magufuli, who scoffed at COVID-19, claiming it had been prayed away from his nation, has died.
He was 61.
“We have lost our courageous leader, President John Magufuli, who has died from a heart illness,” Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan informed fellow Tanzanians in a Wednesday night announcement on state television.
The official cause of death immediately sparked viral debates on social media, where most commentators said Tanzanian officials are – even in his death – refusing to own up to the fact that he died from complications arising from his infection with COVID-19.
Magufuli’s passing comes only five months after the late leader won a landslide 84 percent of the votes cast in presidential elections to earn a second and final five-year term to lead the east African nation.
Vice-President Suluhu Hassan also announced 14 days of national mourning for the late leader.
Magufuli’s unorthodox approach to fighting COVID-19 overshadowed the last year of his life, including his claim that Tanzania was “COVID-19-free” and his call on Tanzanians to pray and fast to chase the virus out of the country.
His government stopped sharing any data on confirmed COVID-19 cases eleven months ago and went after people who dared to admit the existence of the virus.
It took the deaths of three high-profile officials, including one of his closest aides and a former Governor of the Central Bank of Tanzania, for Magufuli to call on Tanzanians to wear face coverings.
Even then, his government along with the government of neighboring Burundi, remain the only countries in the world that have said they have no plans to import COVID-19 vaccines.
Magufuli’s aggressive leadership style won him the nickname of “The Bulldozer”.
He pursued international investors, notably mining companies, seeking to get as much benefit for Tanzanians from the country’s natural resources as he possibly could – canceling mining contracts, revising shareholding arrangements to give the state more shares and slapping fines on companies.
He won praise for his work to end wasteful government spending and corruption and won favor with rural farmers after waiving several taxes.
Magufuli invested heavily in infrastructure and social projects which boosted the country’s economic growth, but was widely criticized for his denialism of the new coronavirus pandemic.
His crackdown on dissent and his aggressive curbing of the freedom of the press and freedom of expression grew more intense as his grip on power strengthened.
The fear of being on the wrong side of an increasingly dictatorial president forced public health professionals into silence, even as COVID-19 ravaged the country.
Medical doctors across the country resorted to hiding behind “breathing difficulties” in order to describe COVID-19.
The announcement that the first vice-president of the autonomous island of Zanzibar – now of blessed memory – had contracted COVID-19, was one of the rare admissions that the virus was real and present in Tanzania.
The powerful Catholic Church in Tanzania, warned against taking the virus lightly, pointing to the deaths of dozens of nuns and priests, from the pandemic .
Sealed Lips as Magufuli was Dying
Even as he was dying, Tanzanian officials stayed tight-lipped about his whereabouts and health condition, as speculation swirled on social media that he was not well.
Last Wednesday, Kenya’s The Nation newspaper reported that an African leader had been admitted to a Nairobi hospital but declined to name the leader, saying the Kenyan government and officials in the nation of the leader, both declined to provide official confirmation.
The Tanzanian leader was last seen in public on February 24, during a tour of the country’s economic capital, Dar es Salaam.
Magufuli skipped scheduled attendance at a virtual heads-of-state summit for the East African Community (EAC) regional bloc, held last February 27.
Last Wednesday, both Tanzanian government spokesperson Hassan Abbasi and Magufuli’s own spokesperson and the country’s Minister of Information, Gerson Msigwa, dodged requests for comments by journalists.
“The President’s well-being is a matter of grave public concern,” read a tweet Tuesday, from Tanzania’s opposition leader Tundu Lissu.
The opposition leader recalled that the health of previous Tanzanian leaders was not a state secret.
“What’s it with Magufuli that we don’t deserve to know?” Lissu asked.
Information Minister, Innocent Bashungwa warned against spreading “rumors,” saying those responsible will be held accountable.
Last Friday, Tanzanian officials spoke up in an attempt to scotch rumors that Magufuli was unwell and receiving medical attention in a foreign country.
“Magufuli is in the country and working hard in his office”, his Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, said Friday.
Majaliwa said spreading such rumors “smacks of hate”.
“Tanzanians, be calm! Your president is there, in good health. He is working,” Majaliwa said, while attending Friday prayers at the main mosque in Njombe, a town in southern Tanzania.
Late last week and early this week, police arrested four people on suspicion of being at the origin of rumors that Magufuli had taken seriously ill.
The closest anyone came to indirectly admitting that Magufuli might be ill, was his Vice-President.
“It’s quite normal for anybody to be afflicted by illness, to contract flu or a fever… this is the time for Tanzanians to be united through prayer,” Vice-President Suluhu Hassan said earlier this week, without naming who she was talking about.
From Grass to Grace
Magufuli was born on 29 October 1959 in the northwestern Tanzanian town of Chato.
His previously worked as a teacher and industrial chemist, before getting into politics.
He became a member of parliament after winning elections in 1995 and held several ministerial positions thereafter.
In 2015, the ruling Chama Cha Mapingduzi elected him as its candidate to succeed former President Jakaya Kikwete. He loved music, was a practicing Christian who went to church regularly, and took joy playing the drums.