Tanzanian President John Magufuli dies aged 61

Leader had not been seen in public since late February

Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli has died at 61.

Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan made the announcement in a televised address on Wednesday.

“Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today, March 17, 2021, around 6pm, we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli, who died from heart illness at Mzena Hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was getting treatment.”

Reports had been circulating for weeks that Mr Magufuli was seriously ill and had been taken out of the country. He had not been seen in public since February 27.

Residents watch the television announcement of the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli, addressed by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania March 18, 2021. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Opposition leaders had said earlier that Mr Magufuli had contracted Covid-19, but the government has yet to confirm those reports.

Mr Magufili, a chemist by training and profession, rose to power in 2015 with the mantra “Hapa kazi tu”, which translates to, “Here, only work.” It was a reference to Mr Magufuli’s no-nonsense approach and his quest to rid the country of corruption.

At the beginning of his presidency, he was praised by some for rooting out corruption and helping to curb illegal activities such as elephant poaching and dynamite fishing.

But his tough approach, which earned him the nickname “The Bulldozer”, eventually devolved towards strongman tendencies.

Mr Magufuli, a member of the Chama cha Mapinduzi party, which is the only political party that holds power in the East African country, cut an isolationist path.

He frequently criticised the West and boasted of never travelling outside the country. But under him, Tanzania veered away from democracy.

Press freedom eroded and opposition leaders were forced into hiding.

"The United States has publicly expressed concern over ongoing shrinking of democratic and civil society space, limits on media freedom and a rise in politically motivated confrontations and violence,” the US state department said in a fact sheet.

He won re-election in October 2020 by more than 70 per cent of the vote, though it was marred by allegations of voter fraud and irregularities.

It was his handling of the coronavirus pandemic – or lack there of – that drew the attention of the Western media.

Mr Magufuli refused to acknowledge the virus and urged his people to pray it away.

"We don't have numbers, but people are dying, but you're not allowed to say anything. If you say something, police will come and take you away," a shop owner in the northern city of Arusha told The National. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

“People have lost their businesses, people have lost a lot of things, and he never came out front.”

The shop owner is hopeful that under Vice President Suluhu Hassan’s leadership, the country will start to properly address the pandemic.

"We extend our condolences to Tanzanians mourning the passing of President John Pombe Magufuli," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the government of Tanzania to improve ties between the American and Tanzanian people."

"We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path," he said.