Tanzania’s President Magufuli Dies—Unconfirmed Reports of Covid-19

President Magufuli
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The late President Magufuli. Photo: Facebook. 

President John Magufuli of Tanzania who had not been since in more than two weeks has died from heart complications, the country’s vice president has announced. 

Magufuli had gained global attention for claiming that Tanzania had eradicated the Covid-19 pandemic by last summer. He also discouraged the use of masks and publicly questioned the use of vaccinations to fight the disease. Magufuli claimed the disease could be eradicated through prayer. He had also promoted the use of a herbal concoction from Madagascar as medicine for Covid-19. Magufuli had also blocked the importation of covid-19 vaccines, prompting a statement by the World Health Organization asking the country to reverse that position. 

The president, 61, died in a hospital in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es-Salaam, the vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan said on national television. There had been reports that Magufuli was receiving treatment in Kenya and that he had been subsequently transferred to a hospital in India. The vice president’s statement would contradict those reports.

"It is with deep regret that I inform you that today we lost our brave leader, the president of the Republic of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli," Vice President Hassan announced. The country will have 14 days of national mourning.

Tundu Lissu, a Tanzanian opposition leader who fled into exile after last year’s disputed election was one of Magufuli’s most vociferous critic over his downplaying of the covid pandemic. On Feb. 20, Lissu tweeted: “To ridicule the use of face masks signals a diseased mind. To celebrate their non-use is an irresponsible and dangerous folly. To criminalize their distribution to citizens is outright criminal. This man is a clear and present [danger] to his own people, to our neighbors and to the world!”

In recent months, Magufuli’s claims that Tanzania had eradicated the pandemic was confronted by inconvenient facts. In February, the first vice president of Zanzibar, the autonomous island part of Tanzania, and a second official, Tanzania’s chief cabinet secretary, both died of covid-19.

After Magufuli was not seen in public for several days, Lissu tweeted, claiming that sources informed him that Magufuli was being treated for covid-19 in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. He later tweeted, claiming that the president was suffering from heart complications and that he was a ventilator and partially paralyzed from a stroke. “The President’s well-being is a matter of grave public concern,” Lissu tweeted on March 9. “We’re informed when Kikwete (former president) had prostate surgery. We’re told when Mkapa (another former president) went for hip replacement. We’re not kept in the dark when Mwalimu (revered founding father Nyerere) fought leukemia. What’s it with Magufuli that we don’t deserve to know?”

Magufuli was first elected president in 2015 and continued as leader after the disputed vote in October. and eschewed ostentatious displays, flying economy during overseas trips. In recent years he became notorious for autocracy, violently suppressing the opposition and clamping down on the independent media. 

Reporters were routinely arrested for their media coverage and even imprisoned. Media have become so cowed that in order to follow news about Magufuli’s illness Tanzanians had to log on to foreign media news sites. The president was not seen in public since Feb. 27.

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