Tanzania: President Magufuli dies at age 61

  • President Magufuli has died, allegedly of heart failure but many will speculate Covid is cause after ardent Covid denial
  • Initial anti-corruption optimism marred by emergence of authoritarian and nationalistic tendencies
  • VP Hassan will serve rest of term (2025); opportunity to put Tanzania back onto positive democratic/economic path
Tanzania: President Magufuli dies at age 61

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has died at a hospital in Dar es Salaam due to heart complications, according to an announcement yesterday on state television by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan. He was 61 years old.

Magufuli had not been seen in public since 24 February, prompting widespread speculation about his health. Opposition leader Tundu Lissu recently told the BBC that Magufuli was being treated in a hospital for coronavirus in Kenya, claims the government vehemently denied. Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa urged citizens to ignore “baseless social media rumours” and claimed last week that Magufuli was "healthy and working hard".

It is still unclear if Covid-19 played a role in his death, which the government will likely try to keep under wraps given Magufuli’s long-standing denial of the virus. Magufuli declared Tanzania "Covid-19 free" last June, and the government hasn’t published infection data since last April. He has repeatedly cast doubts on the efficacy of masks and testing, and warned Tanzanians against vaccines in favour of alternative methods like prayer and steam therapy.

While Magufuli’s denial could seem at times to be comically inept, it has had devastating consequences. Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima said recently that Tanzania doesn’t have any plans to import a vaccine, saying that the government’s chief chemist is working on a number of natural remedies instead. The Magufuli administration’s ongoing denial of the virus has undoubtedly cost countless lives (though how many is an open question, given the lack of data), and will set Tanzania’s post-Covid economic recovery back substantially as neighbouring countries race to vaccinate their populations.

Magufuli’s legacy is mixed, but increasingly negative

Magufuli, known as “The Bulldozer” for his no-nonsense leadership style, came into office in 2015 amid a wave of domestic and international goodwill based largely on his staunch anti-corruption stance and even spawned a series of memes under the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo for his efforts to rein in petty corruption and waste. He also put some of that energy to good use, investing in large infrastructure projects ranging from railways to roads and power projects.

However, as Magufuli settled into office his more nefarious tendencies came to the fore. He is accused by critics of pushing Tanzania towards authoritarianism, cracking down on the press and stifling opposition. In November he won a second term in office with 84% of the votes cast amid allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation that are widely viewed as credible. Immediately after the election, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy said in a tweet that "we remain deeply concerned about reports of systematic interference in the democratic process. We continue to review credible allegations of the use of force against unarmed civilians.”

Magufuli also pushed Tanzania in a more nationalist direction, seeking a greater revenue and ownership share for the state in the mining sector. In 2017, the government handed Barrick Gold a US$190bn tax bill, which was ultimately settled with a US$300mn payment and creation of a joint venture with the state, but greatly undermined Tanzania’s attractiveness as an investment destination. What started as a promising anti-corruption story in 2015 eventually devolved into a worrying mix of authoritarianism, nationalism, and shoot-from-the-hip policymaking that created enough uncertainty to make Tanzania all but off-limits for foreign direct investors.

What is next for Tanzania?

According to Tanzania's constitution, Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan will be sworn in as the new president and should serve out the remainder of Magufuli's five-year team (through 2025). Born in Zanzibar, Hassan was elected as an MP in 2015 and served as the Minister of State in the VP's Office for Union Affairs from 2010-15 under former President Kikwete. She became Tanzania’s first female VP in 2015, and will now become the country’s first female President as well.

While Magufuli’s death is certainly unexpected, Hassan’s ascension could mark an important opportunity for Tanzania to move back in a more democratic and market-friendly direction after 5+ years of authoritarian and nationalistic rule. While the outlook in the early days of the Magufuli administration was bright, and his efforts to clamp down on corruption and improve governance are to be commended, his legacy was ultimately tainted by his shift towards authoritarianism and, in the past year, by his costly denial of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The US State Department released a statement saying “we extend our condolences to Tanzanians mourning the passing of President John Pombe Magufuli”, adding that “we hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path." While it is still too early to tell if Hassan will continue down the same path as Magufuli or turn in a different direction, we think the current political moment provides a much-needed opportunity to correct course and we sincerely hope that Hassan is willing and able to reckon with this administration’s mistakes and set Tanzania up for a more constructive post-Covid recovery.

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