Tanzania was plunged into mourning Thursday over the death of President John Magufuli following weeks of uncertainty over his health, with his swing to authoritarianism leaving a divided legacy.
Flags flew at half-mast as the country began a 14-day mourning period after Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan — who is set to become the country’s first female leader — announced Magufuli’s death shortly before midnight.
Hassan said Magufuli had died on Wednesday of a “heart condition” relating to an abnormal heartbeat that he had long suffered from, in a hospital in Dar es Salaam.
The announcement came after government denials the president was ill as pressure mounted to explain his almost three-week absence from public view, which sparked panic and rumours he was seeking treatment abroad for Covid-19.
Several people were arrested this week for spreading rumours over his ill-health on social media.
As condolences poured in from abroad, main opposition leader Tundu Lissu, shot 16 times in a 2017 assassination attempt and exiled in Belgium, described Magufuli’s death as “poetic justice”, insisting his sources said he had succumbed to Covid-19.
“Magufuli died of corona. That is one. Number two, Magufuli did not die this evening. I have information from basically the same sources which told me he was gravely ill, I have information that Magufuli has been dead since Wednesday of last week,” he told Kenya’s KTN News, using local slang for the virus.
“What should I say? It is poetic justice. President Magufuli defied the world on the struggle against corona… He defied science… And what has happened, happened. He went down with corona.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, current head of the East African Community bloc, said Africa had lost an “illustrious” leader and ordered a seven-day period of mourning in Kenya and for flags to fly at half-mast in the region.
Ethiopia, Britain and the United States also sent condolences, with Washington saying “we hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path.”