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Tanzania’s Covid-sceptic president dies

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DAR ES SALAAM: Tanzanian President John Magufuli died on Wednesday aged 61 from a heart condition, his vice president said, after more than five years of divisive, authoritarian rule capped by his refusal to take Covid-19 seriously.

Magufuli, popularly nicknamed the “Bulldozer”, had been missing from public view for almost three weeks, fuelling wild rumours of his ill health, with opposition leaders claiming he had contracted the virus.

“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,” said Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

She said Magufuli had died of a “heart condition”, known as chronic atrial fibrillation, characterised by an abnormal heartbeat, which he had suffered from for a decade, at a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

The vice president will take over as president, the first woman in Africa to become head of state.

He had first been briefly admitted to the Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute on March 6, but was subsequently discharged, Hassan said.

But Magufuli had again felt unwell and was on March 14 rushed to a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

Hassan announced a 14-day mourning period.

Magufuli last appeared in public on Feb 27, and the fervent Catholic had missed three Sunday services, sparking concern.

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu cited sources saying that the president had caught Covid-19 which had exacerbated his existing health conditions.

Meanwhile, demands grew for information on his whereabouts and rumours took off that Magufuli was seeking treatment outside the country.

The president’s supporters mourned his death, and the uncertain political road ahead.

“I am saddened personally. I’ve lost hope because I relied on him as my leader, he was a leader of the poor and now we are wondering how things will be now that our leader has died,” said 24-year-old Lewis, in Dar es Salaam.

Magufuli was first elected in 2015 as a corruption-busting man of the people, endearing him to a population weary of graft scandals.

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

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.

Analysts said that Magufuli had dealt a crushing blow to democracy in one of Africa’s most stable nations.

However, he also won plaudits for expanding free education, rural electrification and investing in infrastructure projects such as railways, a hydropower dam set to double electricity output and revival of the national airline.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2021


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