Tanzanian President John Magufuli, A COVID-19 Skeptic, Has Died

Mar 17, 2021
Originally published on March 18, 2021 7:36 am

Updated March 17, 2021 at 7:10 PM ET

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has died at age 61. The news was announced Wednesday on state television by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who said the cause of death was heart failure.

Magufuli was a prominent skeptic of the coronavirus. He had not been seen in public since the end of February, fueling speculation he was ill and possibly incapacitated.

He claimed last year that Tanzania had eradicated COVID-19 through three days of prayer, The Associated Press reported. He played down the pandemic and denounced vaccines as a Western conspiracy against Africans.

Tanzania has not updated its COVID-19 cases or deaths since May, but a doctor in Dar es Salaam told the BBC that there has been a significant increase in the last two months in admissions of patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Magufuli's main political rival, Tundu Lissu, has alleged that the president was suffering from COVID-19. Lissu said Wednesday, "This is a president whose denial of COVID-19, whose attempts to cover it up, whose adamant refusal to take any action to combat the pandemic, who has thumbed his nose to the world, refused any international or regional cooperation to deal with COVID-19 and now he goes down with COVID-19 — that is poetic justice to me."

Magufuli, a former chemistry teacher, was first elected to the presidency in 2015. Critics said he moved the country toward authoritarianism, while others praised his earlier battles against corruption.

Lissu called Magufuli a tyrant but said Tanzania will be better after him because "he was so blatant in his repression, because his actions hurt so many people. I think when we speak the language of reform ... people will know what we are talking about."

A diplomatically worded statement last month by Donald Wright, the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, called on governments to share accurate and timely information about their countries' case numbers with the World Health Organization.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday, "We extend our condolences to Tanzanians mourning the passing of President John Pombe Magufuli. We will continue to work with the Government of Tanzania to improve ties between the American and Tanzanian people. The United States remains committed to continuing to support Tanzanians as they advocate for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and work to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path."

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The president of Tanzania has died. He was nicknamed the bulldozer because of his toughness on corruption but was also known as the most ardent COVID denier in Africa. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When John Pombe Magufuli took power in 2005, he was a sensation. He was a technocrat who ran a bunch of Tanzania's government ministries. And when he became president, he stopped public employees from enjoying foreign travel and he canceled expensive public displays. When it came to corruption, he suffered no fools. Take this scene from 2017.


PERALTA: He was inaugurating a bridge. But amid all of the fanfare, he asked a political ally in charge of the bridge to explain how this project was marred by corruption. The ally detailed million-dollar kickback schemes, and Magufuli got angry.


JOHN POMBE MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: What should I do, he asks. And the crowd screams, fire him.


MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).


PERALTA: "There is no room in my administration for officials who feed off the blood of the poor," he says. And as the crowd cheers, he fires his ally right there in public.

P L O LUMUMBA: This is a gentleman who came into Tanzania, injected discipline only reminiscent of the days of Mwalimu Kambarage Nyerere.

PERALTA: That is P.L.O. Lumumba, a leading intellectual in East Africa. He compares Magufuli to Tanzania's liberation hero, Julius Nyerere. Lumumba says Magufuli not only fought corruption, but he decried foreign interference, he defied the West and even China when he rejected what he termed predatory loans.

LUMUMBA: Of course, there'll be no shortage of people who'll want to say a few things against him, but like Saint-Just said, nobody can govern guiltlessly. That is the nature of humanity.

PERALTA: Indeed, Magufuli went after his detractors with authoritarian zeal. Politicians, journalists and prominent critics went missing. Even citizens who defied Magufuli on social media were jailed. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Magufuli, who had a Ph.D. in chemistry, became an ardent COVID denier. He urged Tanzanians to keep living life as normal. And when it came time for Tanzania to sign up for vaccines, his government said it didn't need any. Then last month, as a new wave of coronavirus swept the country, Magufuli disappeared. Opposition leaders said he had contracted COVID-19, and yesterday his vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, said he died from heart failure. She said nothing of COVID-19. Here's Tundu Lissu, who was Magufuli's biggest rival.

TUNDU LISSU: This is a president who has thumbed his nose to the world, refused any international or regional cooperation to deal with COVID-19. And now he goes down with COVID-19. That is poetic justice to me.

PERALTA: Back in 2017, he survived an assassination attempt. And last year, after he disputed a presidential election, he went into exile. He has no kind words for John Pombe Magufuli. He turned Tanzania into an authoritarian state, he says. But maybe Magufuli will leave a different legacy.

LISSU: Because his actions hurt so many people, I think when we speak now the language of reform, people will know what we are talking about.

PERALTA: Maybe the trauma of John Pombe Magufuli will turn Tanzania into a democracy. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.