The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Magufuli, Tanzanian president elected as an agent of reform, dies at 61

Tanzanian President John Magufuli in May 2019. (Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)

John Magufuli, who presided over an increasingly authoritarian regime as president of Tanzania and, during the final year of his reign, rejected scientific evidence of the coronavirus pandemic, urging his citizens to raise their voices in prayer rather than cover their faces with masks, died March 17 at a hospital in Dar es Salaam. He was 61.

The death was announced in a statement by Tanzanian Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who cited “heart complications” as the cause. There had been earlier unconfirmed reports from opposition leaders, which Mr. Magufuli’s government denied, that he had been hospitalized in Nairobi for covid-19. He was last seen in public on Feb. 27.

Mr. Magufuli, who was trained as a chemist and once was a teacher, served as Tanzania’s minister of public works from 2005 to 2015, earning the nickname “the Bulldozer” as much for his blunt, domineering manner as for his building projects.

As a first-time presidential candidate in 2015, he was the unexpected choice of the CCM party (also known as the Revolutionary Party), which had controlled Tanzanian politics for decades. Sandwiched between Kenya to the north and Mozambique to the south, Tanzania had been considered a relative beacon of stability in East Africa since it secured independence from Britain in the early 1960s.

After Mr. Magufuli took office in 2015, he cracked down on government fraud, eliminating thousands of nonexistent “ghost workers” from the payrolls and showing up at various agencies, asking employees to justify their jobs. He sometimes fired public officials on live television.

The economy of the country of 60 million people is built on tourism — Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, is in Tanzania — and exports of gold and agricultural products. Mr. Magufuli demanded that foreign companies doing business in Tanzania pay higher taxes, and he launched ambitious efforts to build dams, roads, railways and soccer stadiums. He sought to revive the dormant state-owned Air Tanzania, despite a shortage of qualified pilots.

After an initial surge in popularity, he faced a backlash against his repressive tactics, often carried out by a nationwide network of security officials. He shut down newspapers and television stations. Musicians performing songs critical of the regime were tortured.

Mr. Magufuli’s detractors were sometimes charged with sedition, “immorality” or “insulting” the president. Some were killed or forced into exile, and mutilated bodies began to wash ashore near the country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. In 2017, Tundu Lissu, the leader of an opposition party, moved to Belgium after he was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt.

“For people who have known Tanzania for the past few decades, this is not the country they associated with peace and security,” journalist Ansbert Ngurumo wrote in 2018, a year after fleeing the country because of death threats. “People are in the grip of terror because of Magufuli. He tolerates no criticism. He rules with an iron fist and has turned the country into a police state.”

Tanzania was once a reliable ally of the United States, but the U.S. State Department warned in December 2020 that under Mr. Magufuli, the nation had undergone a “shrinking of democratic and civil society space, limits on media freedom, and a rise in politically-motivated confrontations and violence.”

China’s influence in the country has grown in recent years through infrastructure and development projects. (Chinese demand for ivory has been linked to elephant poaching in Tanzania.)

Mr. Magufuli’s conservative brand of Catholicism became increasingly doctrinaire, as he adopted a hard-line stance against Tanzania’s LGBTQ community. He banned female contraceptives and ordered that girls who got pregnant be expelled from schools.

His outspoken religiosity, inspired in part by his devotion to a charismatic Nigerian evangelist named T.B. Joshua, helped shape his response to the coronavirus pandemic. From the beginning, Mr. Magufuli emulated U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, suggesting that the virus posed little risk, that medical experts could not be trusted and that economic health was the paramount concern.

He mocked health-safety measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing and fired government health officials if they disagreed. He advocated steam baths and folk remedies. Above all, he called for prayer.

“Our enemies will say a lot, but here in Tanzania we are safe,” he said in August 2020, according to the New York Times. “We put God first, and God heard us.”

When coronavirus testing began, Mr. Magufuli insisted that animals, plants and even motor oil be tested, to see if false positive results could be obtained. On a single day in May 2020, more than 50 Tanzanian truck drivers crossing the border into Kenya tested positive for the coronavirus.

That month, Mr. Magufuli’s government stopped reporting coronavirus statistics to the World Health Organization. The numbers remained frozen at 509 infections and 21 deaths, prompting Mr. Magufuli to declare the pandemic “absolutely finished” in Tanzania.

With the disease quietly spreading through the country, a presidential election was held in October 2020. Lissu returned from exile as the candidate of the Chadema party and spoke before enthusiastic crowds, but there were widespread allegations of fraud and intimidation before the first ballot was cast. Opposition parties and international organizations were not allowed to observe polling, and it was no surprise when Mr. Magufuli was reelected with 84 percent of the vote.

Lissu, who officially received 13 percent, went back to Belgium.

In early 2021, Mr. Magufuli began to relent on the wearing of masks to prevent coronavirus infections, yet he never appeared in public with one himself. He warned his country against vaccination.

“If the White man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for AIDS by now,” he said in January. “He would have found a vaccination for tuberculosis by now. He would have found a vaccination for malaria by now. He would have found a vaccination for cancer by now.”

Businesses, restaurants and nightclubs stayed open, even as the growing death toll in Tanzania could no longer be denied. The U.S. Embassy and British government issued warnings about the uncontrolled infection rate. Last year, Pierre Nkurunziza, the coronavirus-denying president of neighboring Burundi, died suddenly at 55 amid speculation that he had contracted the disease

Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundian president who led authoritarian regime, dies at 55

Even as senior officials in the Tanzanian government fell ill and died, Mr. Magufuli ignored pleas from international agencies to provide accurate figures about the pandemic. (South Africa, with a comparable population, has had more than 51,000 confirmed deaths.)

Journalists discovered that hospitals were overflowing, that medical equipment was in short supply and that churches and mosques were holding funerals in record numbers. Thousands of people had died, doctors told the London-based Guardian newspaper, but they had to list the cause of death as pneumonia because they were forbidden to use the term covid-19.

John Pombe Joseph Magufuli was born Oct. 29, 1959, in Chato, in what was then British-ruled Tanganyika. His parents were poor farmers.

Mr. Magufuli graduated from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1988, with a concentration in chemistry and mathematics. He taught school for several years, and his official biography said he has master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry. A political dissident who questioned the validity of those academic credentials disappeared in 2016, according to an Amnesty International report.

In 1995, Mr. Magufuli was elected to the Tanzanian parliament, before leading the public works department for 10 years.

He and his wife, Janeth, had two children. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Magufuli made one of his final public appearances at a church in Dar es Salaam in late February. One of his top aides died the same day, presumably of covid-19. The president asked the people of his country to engage in three days of prayer to overcome a “respiratory disease,” which he did not name.

“Maybe we have wronged God somewhere,” he said. “Let us all repent.”

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