Tanzania’s John Magufuli dies after months of Covid denialism

One of Africa’s most controversial leaders, the Tanzanian president refused to accept the severity of Covid-19, insisting for months that his country was unaffected by the global pandemic.



Tanzanian President John Magufuli, one of the continent’s most high-profile Covid-19 deniers, has died in hospital in Dar es Salaam, according to the government, plunging the East African nation into uncertainty. He was 61.

Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan confirmed Magufuli’s death after weeks of rumours that he had left the country for Covid-19 treatment, ascribing it to heart complications. According to Tanzania’s constitution, Hassan will be sworn in as the new president and will serve the remainder of Magufuli’s five-year team, which began last year.

Magufuli’s death leaves a huge void in Tanzania’s political landscape. One of Africa’s most controversial leaders, Magufuli refused to accept the severity of Covid-19, insisting for months that his country was unaffected by the global pandemic. He implemented almost no preventative measures to protect the population and joked about the disease. 

The government has neglected to track coronavirus cases, so there are no reliable figures on the virus’s spread or death toll. But reports in recent weeks suggested a surge in hospital patients suffering from respiratory distress. A recent spate of deaths attributed to pneumonia has been reported by citizens on social media and referenced in parliament by a governing MP, and several high profile politicians have succumbed to the disease.

In February, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the situation in the country was “very concerning” and renewed his call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases, share data, implement public health measures and prepare for vaccination. Regional neighbours, including Kenya, had begun to lose patience.

Magufuli’s death will spark calls for Tanzania to adopt a new strategy for dealing with the pandemic. 

The bulldozer’s legacy 

Even before the pandemic, Magufuli was unafraid to court controversy. Nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’ for his early promises to clean up graft, Magufuli, who took office in 2015, brooked no opposition. 

He pursued a combative approach to international business, including foreign mining firms which he insisted were not paying their dues.

In 2017, Acacia Mining, Tanzania’s largest gold-miner, was slapped with a $190bn retrospective tax bill for failing to pay royalties on alleged undeclared exports. In January this year, Canada’s Barrick Gold – which gained full control of Acacia Mining in 2019 – agreed to settle the dispute by paying the Tanzanian government $300m and ceding 16% ownership of its three mines in the country.

He also overturned two agreements with China negotiated by his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete including a $10bn port development, arguing that they were bad deals for Tanzania. 

While the aggressive approach stunted investment in key sectors and projects, Tanzanians applauded Magufuli’s uncompromising attitude. The president remained popular among a support base of mostly lower income citizens in rural areas. He wielded that support to win a landslide second term last year with 84% of the vote.

Yet his political opponents alleged that he disregarded the rule of law and subverted the judiciary by forcing legislation through parliament and using draconian statutes to harass and imprison opponents.

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