Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has died aged 61, the country’s vice-president announced late on Wednesday (16 March), following several weeks of growing speculation and conspiracy theories about his health and whereabouts.
President Magufuli died from heart complications at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said in an address on state television.
“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 said. She also announced 14 days of mourning in the country.
Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’, Magufuli had not been seen in public for more than two weeks, and rumours had been circulating about his health, following reports last week that he was suffering from COVID-19 and had been admitted to hospitals in neighbouring Kenya and then India.
Last week, government officials in Dodoma and Nairobi refused to officially confirm the reports that Magufuli was suffering from COVID-19 in a Nairobi hospital, citing diplomatic protocol, though Kenyan officials provided enough information to allow journalists to offer heavy hints that an “unnamed African leader” being treated in hospital was Magufuli.
A COVID-19 denier for the first year of the pandemic, Magufuli only conceded the existence of the disease in late February after health officials warned that case numbers were running out of control. His government has not imposed any significant restrictions on public life. It has also refused to accept any vaccines or publish daily figures on infection and death rates.
Neighbouring countries in the East African Community took delivery of their first batches of coronavirus vaccines last week via the WHO–backed COVAX vaccine initiative to which the EU is one of the largest donors. However, none were sent to Tanzania because its government had rejected the scheme.
Tanzanian ministers have since signed up to the COVAX programme.
Magufuli won his second term of office with an 84% majority in elections last October that were widely criticised by the EU and the wider international community as having been marred by vote rigging and widespread intimidation of opposition parties.
His relations with the EU were also controversial. In 2019, the European Commission was close to suspending aid to the country after EU ambassador Roeland Van de Geer was expelled from Tanzania after raising concerns about its declining levels of democratic freedoms and human rights abuses.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]