Tanzania: president John Magufuli dead at 61, did he die of Covid – and who is vice president Samia Suluhu?

President John Magufuli passed away having not been in public for more than two weeks – the exact cause of his death is unknown

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 12:39 pm
The late John Magufuli at the official launch of his party's campaign for the October 2020 general election (Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has died at the age of 61 following heart complications, state media has said.

The country’s vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan announced the leader’s death in an address on state television on Wednesday (17 March), telling viewers Magufuli died in hospital in Dar es Salaam on the country’s east coast.

"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,” she said.

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A man reads a newspaper with a headline announcing the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli (Photo: -/AFP via Getty Images)

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What do we know about coronavirus variants?

Tanzania’s populist president only accepted the official certification of his victory in the East African country’s election in late 2020, taking the oath of office for a second five-year term amid calls for a fresh election from opposition leaders.

Here is everything you need to know about him.

Did he die from Covid-19?

The president's approach to tackling coronavirus was questioned by the World Health Organisation - he recommended 'herbal-infused steam therapy' as treatment (Photo: ERICKY BONIPHACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Magufuli had not been seen in public for more than two weeks, making his last public appearance on 27 February.

Though rumours had been circulating about his health, including that he had become infected with Covid-19, Tanzania’s Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa insisted last week that the president was "healthy and working hard."

He blamed rumours of ill-health on "hateful" Tanzanians living abroad, and earlier this week, just days before the president’s death, four people were arrested on suspicion of spreading rumours on social media that Magufuli was ill.

Were the Covid-19 rumours to be true, it would be something of an embarrassment for the leader’s legacy, as Magufuli was one of Africa's most prominent coronavirus sceptics.

How did he approach Covid-19?

His attempts to battle the virus with prayers and herbal-infused steam therapy were widely criticised by his political rivals, and he refused to close the country’s churches during initial outbreaks, as they were where “true healing” could be found.

"Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus," he reportedly said in March 2020; three months later, he announced that the disease had been defeated by national prayer and called for a public celebration.

Magufuli also attempted to discredit the accuracy of coronavirus PCR test kits, instructing security forces to use them on everything from goats and sheep to motor oil, all of which were found to be “positive” for Covid-19, according to the president.

Was he popular?

Magufuli was first elected president in 2015, running as the candidate of Tanzania’s dominant party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

In recent years, Magufuli had increasingly brought in new restrictions on free speech, and regularly cracked down on members of the political opposition who spoke out against him.

He was re-elected in 2020, running on a platform of investment in Tanzanian industry and reducing government corruption and spending.

But the legitimacy of the election was clouded by reports of "arrests of candidates and protesters, restrictions on access to polling stations, multiple voting, and widespread blocking of social media."

A local elections watchdog group said the vote was conducted under a “climate of fear”, with heavy military and police presences a common sight.

What will happen now?

The African constitution dictates that vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan will be sworn in as president within 24 hours, and will serve the remainder of Magufuli's term.

The 61-year old Suluhu became Tanzania's first female vice-President following the 2015 General election, after being elected on the CCM ticket along with Magufuli.

Her promotion following the death of Magufuli also makes her the country's first female president.