DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AFP) — Tanzania was in mourning Thursday over the sudden death of President John Magufuli, an authoritarian leader and Covid sceptic who leaves behind a divided legacy and a question mark over his fatal illness.
Flags flew at half-mast as the country began a 14-day mourning period after Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced Magufuli had died Wednesday of a “heart condition” in a hospital in Dar es Salaam.
Under Tanzania’s constitution, Hassan should become the country’s first female president and will finish Magufuli’s five year term, ruling until 2025.
The government had previously denied Magufuli was ill as pressure mounted to explain his almost three-week absence from public view, which sparked rumors he was seeking treatment abroad for coronavirus.
Several people were arrested this week for spreading rumors over his ill-health on social media.
As condolences poured in from abroad, main opposition leader Tundu Lissu, shot 16 times in a 2017 assassination attempt and exiled in Belgium, described Magufuli’s death as “poetic justice”, insisting his sources said he had succumbed to Covid-19 a week ago.
“Magufuli died of corona. That is one. Number two, Magufuli did not die this evening,” he told Kenya’s KTN News.
“What should I say? It is poetic justice. President Magufuli defied the world on the struggle against corona… He defied science… And what has happened, happened. He went down with corona.”
Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party told journalists there would be a special meeting of its central committee on Saturday, as the country awaits news on the inauguration of the new president and the funeral arrangements.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, current head of the East African Community bloc, said Africa had lost an “illustrious” leader and ordered a seven-day period of mourning in Kenya and for flags to fly at half-mast in the region.
The African Union, regional leaders, Britain and the United States also sent condolences.
“We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path,” the US State Department said in a statement.
Tanzania, a country of 58 million known for its wildlife-rich parks and mining wealth, has long been seen as a haven of stability in an otherwise volatile neighborhood, but observers say Magufuli marred this image.
– ‘I am shocked’ –
Magufuli was first elected in 2015 as a corruption-busting man of the people, endearing him to a population weary of graft scandals, and who loved his no-nonsense attitude.
His expansion of free education, rural electrification and infrastructure investments also won him support, as did his efforts to increase Tanzania’s stake in mineral resources, demanding millions in back taxes from foreign mining companies.
“The poor had started making progress, business was flourishing, if you had a problem, the president would hear you out,” said 71-year-old newspaper vendor Kondo Nyumba, crying.
However, Magufuli was criticized for a slide into authoritarianism, which saw a crackdown on the media, civil society and the opposition.
His re-election last October was dismissed by the opposition and some diplomats as a sham, over alleged rigging and a crackdown on his rivals.
“No regret… We have prepared a cow to slaughter and this is the day I was waiting for. I do not mourn him but people who died during his regime,” said William, a trader.
Thabit Jacob, a Tanzanian expert at Denmark’s Roskilde University, told AFP Magufuli “will be remembered far more for what he destroyed… than for anything he started building.”
“Some will argue he had good intentions and had the country at heart, but he leaves us with a complicated legacy to discuss for many years.”
– ‘There is no Covid-19’ –
Magufuli was one of a handful of world leaders, alongside former US president Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who scoffed at Covid-19, going so far as to deny its presence in the country.
“That’s why we are all not wearing face masks here. You think we don’t fear dying? It’s because there is no Covid-19,” he said.
He called for prayer instead of face masks, refused to publish case statistics or implement lockdown measures, and championed alternative medicines.
In May last year he revealed a papaya, quail and goat had tested positive for the virus in a secret operation, proving “sabotage” at the national laboratory.
However by February, as cases soared and the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died from Covid-19, Magufuli conceded the virus was still circulating.
He is the second East African leader to die under mysterious circumstances.
Burundi’s equally Covid-sceptic leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, died from “heart failure” last June after his wife was flown to Nairobi to be treated for coronavirus.