The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In death, as in life, Tanzania’s Magufuli polarized his country

Tanzanian President John Magufuli in July. (AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, who died on Wednesday at 61, left a complicated legacy after five years in power. While his country achieved “middle-income status” from international lending institutions, it also nosedived on indexes of political freedom and human rights.

In his final year in office, Magufuli also emerged as arguably the most ardent and dangerous downplayer of the pandemic among global heads of state. He publicly shunned vaccines and claimed his nation “covid-free” for much of last year, maintaining for months that three days of prayer he had called for in June had rid the East African country of 60 million from the virus, even as hospitals filled up and other nations reported importing cases from Tanzania.

The announcement of his death, much like the years he served as president, exposed a country deeply divided over his strongman style of leadership — and even his cause of death, which many assumed to have been because of covid-19, despite a lack of evidence.

With the swearing-in on Friday of his vice president, Samia Suluhu — who became East Africa’s only female head of state — expectations of continuity clashed with hopes for a reset.

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

“We loved him. He was a good leader. They say that good people do not live for long,” said Charles Nyerembe, 40, who works in agriculture in the northern city of Moshi. Suluhu, in her speech announcing Magufuli’s death, attributed it to heart complications.

“It is only a few who did not have Tanzania’s interests at heart who are happy about the events. It was not covid, it was God’s will. Those who had Tanzania’s interests at heart are broken,” he said.

Nyerembe and others, even including human rights activists, pointed to economic growth as an achievement of Magufuli’s that might endure.

“What I will remember Magufuli for is the fight against corruption, and issues of infrastructure — he was very passionate about issues of electricity, industries. Despite all the negative things, that was his passion,” said Anna Henga, executive director of the Legal and Human Rights Center in Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.

But Henga and others said they spent much of the past five years trying to get colleagues out of jail after they had been arrested for speaking out against the government.

Maxence Melo, who runs Jamii Forums, a popular local social media network, said he had appeared in court 152 times under Magufuli in three different cases, all in which the government attempted to force him to disclose the identities of users who had written negatively about the government.

“He did not do well on human rights issues. A lot of people were abducted and others taken to court for cases which were not even supposed to be criminal cases and I was among the victims,” said Melo.

Magufuli’s pandemic response also brought about international reprove and threatened to leave Tanzania isolated as travel reopened and he openly rejected global plans to distribute vaccines.

Almost three weeks had passed between Magufuli’s last public appearance in late February and the announcement of his death. The highly contagious B.1.351 variant is thought to be circulating widely in Tanzania.

Tanzania’s leader says his country is ‘covid-free.’ The facts are proving him wrong.

Yet while denying the virus’ presence in Tanzania, his government advised people to prevent infections with vegetable smoothies and steam therapy. His government promoted unproven therapies and refused to share outbreak data.

“Vaccinations are dangerous,” he said at a rally in January, making a claim not supported by science. “If the White man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for AIDS by now.”

The country’s official count has stayed at 509 cases and 21 deaths since its health ministry stopped reporting data last April.

“You would not have anyone on record talk about covid except for very few of us, and ask yourself why,” said Maria Sarungi, founder of Change Tanzania, a freedom of expression advocacy group. “It’s killing a lot of people, but Tanzanians have been terrified of this person and his cabal.”

The suppression of information in Tanzania is part of the legacy of Magufuli’s rule. In a country that once had a free press, dozens of journalists had been arrested or hounded out of their jobs for reporting critically on his government.

Magufuli portrayed himself as an anti-imperialist, and dissenters, including journalists and opposition supporters, as representing foreign forces intent on keeping Tanzania down.

One journalist whose newspaper had been shut down and who asked to remain anonymous out of continued fear for his safety said he saw the clampdown on the media as a personal vendetta of Magufuli’s and thought his successor might allow him to start working again.

“I expect that I will be able to go back to journalism now,” he said. “I hope everything will be all right and the media will be free.”

Magufuli, a former teacher and industrial chemist, had claimed a resounding victory in a reelection campaign last year that observers said was clouded by widespread intimidation tactics. Tanzania’s president can act unilaterally on a wide array of issues, and Magufuli’s singular command of the country’s politics was on particularly public display during the pandemic.

He never spoke about falling ill nor mentioned the coronavirus by name. But less than a month before his death, the president changed his tune, signaling concerns about “a respiratory illness” in Tanzania.

At a Sunday church service in the capital, Dodoma, he encouraged people to buy locally made masks.

Hours later, the health ministry issued a statement asking people to cover their faces and wash their hands.

“There is a lot of work cut out for [Suluhu]," said Sarungi. “This is a country that’s deeply divided. This is a country that’s going to need more than just words for reconciliation, because one of the biggest challenges that we have is what Magufuli himself often said outright: Tanzania is for his party only.”

For those who pledge allegiance to that party, however, progress and unabashed patriotism is what they saw Magufuli as bringing. In standing alone in the world against coronavirus vaccines, for example, some supporters saw the bucking of former colonial powers in the West still perceived as being spoilers in Tanzania’s development.

“He did things that are visible. He built roads, hospitals, we can see,” said Nyerembe. “He knew and even said it, that White people do not like us, they only like what we have so that we can give them what is ours, and they use it to develop themselves.”

“If those his successor follows his protocols,” he said, “Tanzania will remain on the right track.”