Opposition leaders in Tanzania aren’t buying the official line on President John Magufuli’s death from heart problems. In the days following the March 17 announcement, a growing number of critics say the leader, a prominent Covid-sceptic who had told Tanzanians they could pray the disease away, died from coronavirus. The main opposition leader Lissu Tundu called his death “poetic justice” because of his bullish assertions that the country was “Covid-free.”
Speculation about Magfuli’s health had escalated over the 18 days that Magufuli, 61, had uncharacteristically disappeared from public view. Conflicting reports claimed the president was seeking care in India. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Minister Mwigulu Nchemba threatened to arrest anyone “blathering, spreading misinformation” about Magufuli. Police charged at least four people for spreading false information about the sickness of political leaders.
The crackdown is consistent with Magufuli’s authoritarianism. In power since 2015, Magufuli shuttered independent media outlets and pressured social media platforms like Twitter to silence activist voices.
But it was for his anti-science pandemic response that Magufuli, a former chemistry teacher, gained international notoriety. An initial science-led approach by the president in the early days of the pandemic was rapidly abandoned in favor of coronavirus scepticism.
In the past year, Magufuli:
- questioned the safety of masks, coronavirus tests and vaccines
- promoted conspiracy theories claiming vaccines were a Western plot against Africans
- sent papaya and goat meat samples to labs for Covid-19 testing, using the results to justify the denial of the virus
- refused to procure any coronavirus vaccine until national experts had reviewed them
Magufuli’s vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in on March 19, The country’s first female president, Hassan must decide whether to procure Covid-19 vaccines. The country has not released the number of Covid infections in the country since May, 2020, when it reported just 509 cases.
Political opponents of the former president have called on the government to provide transparency into this death. “Magufuli died of corona,” said Tundu, the opposition leader. The head of the ACT-Wazalendo opposition party, Zitto Kabwe, said, “It is important for the government to inform the public about the president’s health to reduce ongoing fear.”