After denying the existence of the coronavirus, Tanzanian President, John Pombe Magufuli, has reportedly died of the contagion at the age of 61.
Announcing his death in a live television address, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said Magufuli had died of a heart condition.
Speculation had been rife about his possible infection with the coronavirus. He had not been seen in public since the end of February.
“Our beloved president passed on at 6 p.m. this evening,” said Suluhu. “All flags will be flown at half-mast for 14 days. It is sad news. The president has had this illness for the past 10 years.”
She added that the late president died at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city.
Following the announcement of his death, opposition leader Zitto Kabwe said he’d spoken with the vice president to offer his condolences.
“The nation will remember him for his contribution to the development of our country,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, Magufuli had downplayed the severity of the virus.
At one point, he made fun of the country’s coronavirus testing facilities, saying he had secretly sent samples of papaya and goat and that they came out positive.
Though he never provided proof of that claim, he warned that those results could mean that people were getting false positive results.
Shortly afterward, Tanzania stopped sharing updates on the number of people infected and killed due to COVID-19.
The country’s last coronavirus figures were given in May last year. At that time, 509 people were confirmed to have contracted the virus and 29 had died.
As neighboring countries Kenya and Uganda were implementing lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of COVID-19, President Magufuli shocked many by declaring that Tanzania would remain open for business.
“WeTanzanians have not locked ourselves down, and I don’t expect to announce even a single day that we are implementing a lockdown because our God is still alive, and he will continue protecting us Tanzanians,” the late president once told a crowd.
“But we shall also continue taking precautions, including steaming. You steam, at the same time pray to God, and going on with your daily activities so that you eat well and your body builds immunity against the coronavirus.”
After Zanzibar’s first Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad died from the virus in February, Magufuli and to a larger extent Tanzanians, began to acknowledge the severe risk of contracting the deadly pathogen.
Tanzania’s Health Ministry later issued instructions urging citizens to observe COVID prevention protocols.
From teacher to president
Born on October 29, 1959, Magufuli earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1994 and 2009, respectively.
After a short stint of teaching at Sengerema Secondary School and later working as an industrial chemist, Magufuli went into politics under the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.
He was elected a member of parliament in 1995 and that same year appointed deputy minister of works, receiving the title of minister in 2000.
In 2010, he gained popularity after he was appointed Tanzania’s minister for works and transportation for the second time.
His bullish leadership style and fight against graft in the road construction industry was endearing for Tanzanians, who later nicknamed him “the bulldozer.”
He ran as president in 2015 and won 58% of the vote, defeating Edward Lowassa of the Chadema opposition party.
In 2020, he was re-elected — a win that opposition presidential candidate Tundu Lissu decried as fraudulent.
In his inauguration address, Magufuli was full of praise for the country’s electoral conduct.
“As you are aware, elections have been a source of conflict in many countries, but we Tanzanians have safely passed this test. This is proof to the world that Tanzanians are peace-loving, and we have matured in our democracy.”