Tanzania’s president John Magufuli, who long denied that Covid-19 posed a threat to his country, has died after a mysterious two-week illness, the vice-president said on Wednesday night.
Magufuli, 61, disappeared from public view on February 27, raising speculation that he had contracted Covid-19, though Kassim Majaliwa, the prime minister, insisted last week that the president was “healthy and working hard”.
At least four people were arrested for spreading rumours the president was ill, part of a pattern of repression against journalists who criticised Magufuli or his policies.
On Wednesday night, Samia Suluhu Hassan, the vice-president, went on state television to announce that Magufuli had died. “Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today 17 March 2021 around 6pm we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli, who died from heart illness,” she said.
Under the constitution, Hassan is expected to assume the presidency, though the silence during Magufuli’s illness had raised speculation that a power struggle was in progress.
“The risk of this [transition] being messy is high,” said a senior foreign businessman with interests in Tanzania.
Members of the opposition, who had drawn attention to Magufuli’s disappearance nearly two weeks ago, said the president might have died last week. Tundu Lissu, an opposition leader who was shot multiple times in 2017 and fled into exile, said the president had been transferred to Nairobi for treatment and possibly taken on to India after that.
Lissu tweeted earlier in the day, before the official announcement of the president’s death: “While preparations for a military parade are going on, the VP is busy touring the country as if nothing is happening. Bob Marley said it all: ‘you can fool some people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. And now we see the light!’”
The vice-president said Magufuli died in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital.
“He was an extremely divisive figure,” said Fatma Karume, former president of the Tanganyika Law Society. “For some of us, we are going to remember him as somebody who took our constitution, ripped it apart, cared nothing about the rule of law or our democracy or personal freedoms,” she said. “It was rule by fiat and Tanzania was his personal fiefdom.”
Magufuli, who studied chemistry at Dar es Salaam university, was elected a member of parliament in his Chato district in 1995. He gained prominence as minister of works from 2010 when he earned the nickname “the Bulldozer” for his forthright style and reputation for getting things done.
He was elected president in 2015 as the candidate for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party and was seen by many as restoring party discipline and cracking down on corruption. Early on in his administration he would appear at the desks of civil servants and fire those who he discovered had not turned up for work on time.
His style became increasingly repressive as he cracked down on any form of dissent and restricted access to the internet for those who criticised him. Last October, he won a second term in an election marred by intimidation of the opposition. Internationally, he was blamed for telling young women who got pregnant that they could not return to school, though he was also known for disparaging birth control.
Domestically, he won some plaudits for taking on foreign investors who were viewed as exploiting the country. He banned exports of unprocessed ore and led a tax dispute against the former Acacia Mining, now part of Barrick Gold, which he accused of underdeclaring the value of its exports. However, critics said that his strong anti-business rhetoric put off both foreign and domestic investors, stifling growth.
Magufuli gained international notoriety during the Covid-19 crisis for being one of the few leaders in Africa to deny the virus posed any threat. A devout Catholic, he said God would protect Tanzanians and mocked testing and social distancing. While most countries in Africa scrambled for vaccines, Magufuli said he did not trust foreign science.
Critics say his policies may have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, although Tanzania stopped reporting Covid fatalities and infections last May. Last month, Seif Sharif Hamad, first vice-president of the country’s semi-autonomous Zanzibar region, died in hospital after testing positive for Covid. Several Tanzanian parliamentarians have died with Covid-like symptoms.
Hassan, as vice-president, is now expected to take Magufuli’s place. Born in Zanzibar, she studied economics in Manchester in the UK and worked for the UN’s World Food Programme before holding various government posts. She would be the first female president of Tanzania.