By Lisa Vives
Flags are flying at half-mast in Tanzania over the passing of President John Pombe Joseph Magufuli, the country’s populist leader who passed away in the port city of Dar es Salaam on March 17 following his hospitalization for heart complications. The President was 61 years of age.
Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced the leader’s death on national television. Hassan is expected to be sworn in to succeed Magufuli and complete his second five-year term which he had just started after winning elections late last year. She will be Tanzania’s first female head of state.
Magufuli had first been briefly admitted to the Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute on March 6, but was subsequently discharged, Hassan said on state television. He was rushed to the hospital again on March 14 after feeling unwell.
Tributes have poured in from other African heads of state but in his own country, the reaction was mixed, with members of the opposition citing the shrinking of the democratic space under President Magufuli and his controversial stand on the covid virus. A fierce covid denier, he opposed masks and social distancing, promoted unproven remedies and claimed that the virus had been eliminated in the country by God.
“Vaccines don’t work”
Until his death, Mr Magufuli discouraged the Health Ministry from securing doses for Tanzania. “Vaccines don’t work,” he claimed in late January. “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccines for AIDS would have been brought. Vaccines for tuberculosis would have made it thing of the past, Vaccines for malaria would have been found, Vaccines for cancer would have been found.”
Tragically, although his death was attributed to heart failure, COVID-19 was the factor many suspected during his three-week-long absence from public view and his final demise.
“Magufuli died of the corona,” declared opposition leader Tundu Lissu. “(He) defied the world on the struggle against COVID-19… He defied the East African community, he defied all our neighbours. He defied science. He refused to take the basic precautions that people all over the world are being told to take in the fight against COVID-19.”
“He did not wear a face mask. He actually denigrated anyone who wore a face mask. He did not believe in vaccines. He did not believe in science. He placed his faith in faith healers and herbal concoctions of dubious medical value.” said Lissu. “And what has happened? He went down with COVID-19. And now they are telling us he had heart disease. It is the corona.”
Shortly before his passing, Magufuli conceded the virus was still circulating, after the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of COVID-19.
Magufuli was elected in 2015 on promises to tackle corruption and boost infrastructure development.
However, a slide into authoritarianism, which saw a crackdown on the media, civil society and opposition, raised alarm among foreign allies and rights groups.
His re-election last October was challenged by the opposition and some diplomats as a sham due to alleged rigging, the blocking of foreign media and observer teams and an oppressive military presence.
Some analysts said that Magufuli had dealt a crushing blow to democracy in one of Africa’s most stable nations.
However, he also won praise for expanding free education, rural electrification and investing in infrastructure projects such as railways, a hydropower dam set to double electricity output and the revival of the national airline.
His government also passed a raft of laws to increase Tanzania’s stake in its mineral resources and demanded millions in back taxes from foreign mining companies.
Magufuli was born in Tanzania’s northwestern Chato district, on the shores of Lake Victoria, where he grew up in a grass-thatched home, herding cattle and selling milk and fish to support his family.
“I know what it means to be poor,” he often said.
He was awarded a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Dar es Salaam and also spent some time studying at Britain’s University of Salford.
Magufuli was a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has been in power since independence from Britain in the early 1960s.
A member of parliament since 1995, he held various cabinet portfolios, including livestock, fisheries and public works, where he earned the “Bulldozer” moniker.
Mr Magufuli is survived by his wife, Janet, a primary school teacher, and two children.