Tanzanian Leader Who Downplayed Pandemic Dies

President John Magufuli’s complex legacy is overshadowed by his repeated dismissals of the coronavirus.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli greets crowds before a speech.
Tanzania's incumbent resident, John Magufuli, waves as he arrives to give a campaign speech in Dodoma, Tanzania, on Aug. 29, 2020. Ericky Boniphace/AFP via Getty Images

Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who drew international condemnation for dismissing the threat of the coronavirus pandemic and refusing to obtain vaccines for his country, has died at the age of 61, possibly due to complications from the coronavirus.

Magufuli, nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” won early plaudits after being elected in 2015 for his efforts to modernize Tanzania’s economy and tackle corruption and wasteful government spending. But he became increasingly authoritarian over time, centralizing the presidency’s powers and cracking down on journalists and political opponents. He died just five months after being reelected for a second term in a vote that independent observers say was marred by allegations of fraud and voter intimidation.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world, Magufuli set himself apart from other African and world leaders by dismissing the severity of the pandemic and refusing to purchase vaccines for his country.

Opposition leaders say that Magufuli died after contracting the coronavirus, though the Tanzanian government says he died of a heart attack after being admitted to a Dar es Salaam hospital on March 6.

The president was last spotted on Feb. 27, and his conspicuous absence fueled rumors about his ill health. Until then, the late Tanzanian president was a vehement COVID-19 denier, even as hospitals were inundated and religious leaders sounded alarm bells about the number of funerals they were presiding over. Still, Magufuli’s government stopped releasing any statistics on COVID-19 in May of last year and then in June declared the country coronavirus-free.

For months, the health ministry failed to implement a response, instead encouraging steaming, traditional remedies, and prayer. When Denmark reported that two of its citizens tested positive for the coronavirus after traveling to Tanzania, Magufuli grudgingly conceded the presence of the virus in his country, but he blamed Tanzanians who traveled abroad for bringing the virus home. He was equally skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, even as the World Health Organization chastised him.

When Magufuli was first sworn in as president in 2015, he was celebrated for his tough stance on corruption and his vigorous efforts to cut government spending. He appointed a pared-down cabinet that was nearly half the size of his predecessor’s and did away with extravagant Independence Day celebrations.

The former public works minister was largely seen as an outside compromise candidate as the liberation movement-turned-ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi, seemed to be losing steam and popularity among voters. Magufuli immediately launched into Tanzania’s fifth five-year development plan, which focused on “Nurturing Industrialization for Economic Transformation and Human Development.” The plan returned to a national vision not seen since the 1970s, premised on state discipline, thrift, and tax collection, as African electoral politics scholar Dan Paget wrote.

Magufuli’s administration oversaw large infrastructure projects, including expanded highways, improvement of the rail system, and a rapid bus transit network. He cracked down on tax dodgers and shook up the Tanzania Revenue Authority. Then he went after foreign companies. He famously engaged in an episode of multinational brinkmanship with the Acacia gold-mining company, a subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold.

Magufuli accused the company of “stealing” by failing to pay proper taxes and exporting more gold than declared. The bitter dispute lasted two years and led to a $300 million fine, ending with the Tanzanian government grabbing a 16 percent stake in its mines and 50 percent royalties to the state. While it deterred foreign companies, the move was celebrated at home.

Living up to his nickname, Magufuli increasingly cracked down on civil society and the independent press. Under his rule, live parliamentary debates were canned, and television stations were fined for airing press conferences by nongovernmental organizations critical of the government.

Police also disrupted opposition rallies and arrested rival presidential candidates eight times in the run-up to the 2020 election. His government shut down several newspapers and criminalized online criticism of the president. Days before Magufuli’s death was officially announced, Tanzanian police arrested a man who speculated about the president’s death online.

As he suffocated the democratic space, Magufuli filled it with his own larger-than-life persona. He banned pregnant teenagers from attending school, did push-ups on the campaign trail to show off his personal fitness, and sowed doubt over COVID-19 vaccines, implying that Tanzanians were being used as guinea pigs for untested medical experiments.

His successor, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, will have to decide what of Magufuli’s legacy to keep. According to Tanzania’s constitution, she will remain in the presidency until the next national election in 2025, when she will be allowed to run for a second term.

She is already being celebrated as Tanzania’s first woman president, and it’s significant that Suluhu Hassan is from Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off Tanzania’s coast, which has become increasingly politically at odds with the mainland and the ruling party. A Muslim woman, Suluhu Hassan said her male colleagues in the ruling party “looked down” on her. Still, she has been Magufuli’s running mate since 2015 and enacted the policies that saw Tanzania increasingly isolated from the global stage. Suluhu Hassan herself announced the president’s death, but just days before she had perpetuated the lack of clarity around Magufuli’s failing health.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price extended condolences in a statement on Thursday that cited the coronavirus and hinted at the state of democracy in Tanzania. “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,” he said. “We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path.”

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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