Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, one of Africa’s most prominent COVID-19 skeptics, has died aged 61, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced on Wednesday after a more than 2-week absence from public life that led to speculation about his health.
She said he died from the heart disease that had plagued him for a decade, adding that burial arrangements were under way and announced 14 days of mourning and the flying of flags at half staff. State television broadcast mournful and religious songs.
Magufuli, had not been seen in public since Feb. 27, sparking rumors that he had contracted coronavirus. Officials denied on March 12 that he had fallen ill and on Monday the vice president called on citizens not to listen to rumors from outside the country, saying it was normal for a human being to be checked for the flu or fever.
“Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today 17 March 2021 around 6 p.m. we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli who died from heart disease at Mzena hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was getting treatment,” the VP said on state broadcaster TBC.
He was Tanzania’s first president to die while in office.
On Friday, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said he had spoken to Magufuli, and blamed the narrative of the president’s ailment on some “hateful” Tanzanians living abroad.
Tundu Lissu, Magufuli’s main rival in the October election when the president won a second 5-year term, had suggested Tanzania’s leader had been flown to Kenya for treatment for coronavirus and then moved to India in a coma.
After the death was announced, opposition leader Zitto Kabwe said he had spoken to VP Hassan to offer condolences for Magufuli’s death. “The nation will remember him for his contribution to the development of our country,” Kabwe said in a statement published on Twitter.
According to Tanzania’s Constitution, Vice President Hassan, 61, should assume the presidency for the remainder of the 5-year term that Magufuli started serving last year after winning a second term. She would be the East African nation’s first female president.
Born in the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, Hassan studied economics in Britain, worked for the U.N.’s World Food Program and then held multiple government posts prior to becoming Tanzania’s first female VP in 2015.