Tanzania Mourns Mysterious Death of Divisive President John Magufuli

Tanzanian President John Magufuli outside State House in Dar es Salaam on August 15, 2019, during a state visit by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Tanzania has begun a two-week period of mourning, following the official announcement of the death of President John Magufuli after weeks of uncertainty over his health. The dead leader's swing to authoritarianism will leave a divided legacy.

Flags flew at half-mast as the country began a 14-day mourning period after Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan -- who is set to become the country's first female leader -- announced Magufuli's death shortly before midnight on Wednesday.

Hassan said Magufuli had died of a "heart condition" in a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

Samia Suluhu Hassan will be sworn in as Tanzania 🇹🇿 President and will lead for the remainder of Magufuli's term until 2025. He had just been re-elected in November last year.

She becomes the first female President in Tanzania and East Africa. pic.twitter.com/zFyXZEy2Ha

- Usher Komugisha (@UsherKomugisha) March 17, 2021

The announcement came after government denials that the president was ill as pressure mounted to explain his almost three-week absence from public view.

Several people were arrested this week for spreading rumours over his ill-health on social media.

Condolences and critisism

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.

"Magufuli died of corona. That is one. Number two, Magufuli did not die this evening. I have information from basically the same sources which told me he was gravely ill, I have information that Magufuli has been dead since Wednesday of last week," he told Kenya's KTN News.

Tundu Lissu: I have received the news of President John Magufuli's passing without any surprise to be honest, I had expected this all along from March 7th when I first tweeted about it. #KTNMorningExpress pic.twitter.com/1Ay6L3AxBq

- KTN News (@KTNNewsKE) March 18, 2021

"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."

Magufuli was one of a handful of world leaders, alongside former US president Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, who scoffed at the virus, championing alternative medicines.

A complicated legacy

Magufuli was first elected in 2015 as a corruption-busting man of the people, a position which endeared him to a population weary of graft scandals, 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, with the government 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, as he sold the day's papers, one of which had 'Sorrow' headlining the front page.

However, Magufuli's slide into authoritarianism, which saw a crackdown on the media, civil society and opposition, raised alarm among foreign allies and rights groups.

Questions surround 2020 re-election

His re-election last October was dismissed by the opposition and some diplomats as a sham, over alleged rigging, the blocking of foreign media and observer teams and an oppressive military presence.

"He will be remembered far more for what he destroyed . . . civic space, media freedom, democratic institutions, good governance . . . than for anything he started building . . . roads, modern railways, bridges, power plants, new planes and more," said Dr Thabit Jacob, a researcher at the Roskilde University in Denmark and expert on Tanzania, in a text message.

Outsiders find it strange some people are celebrating the death of their President. It is strange yes, but many of you have no idea what Tz folks have been through in recent years. Let people have their moment.

- Thabit Jacob (@ThabitSenior) March 17, 2021

"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."

Under Tanzania's constitution, Samia Suluhu Hassan will become the country's first female president, and will consult the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party over the appointment of a new vice-president.

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