Tanzania's Magufuli, the 'Bulldozer' president who dismissed Covid-19

·4-min read

Tanzania was plunged into mourning on Thursday following the death of President John Magufuli, a corruption-busting "man of the people" whose swing to authoritarianism and dismissal of the coronavirus pandemic leave a divided legacy.

Flags flew at half-mast in the capital Dar es Salaam as the country began a 14-day mourning period for the man nicknamed the "Bulldozer".

Magufuli, 61, died of what authorities said was a heart condition, after a prolonged absence that fuelled rumours he had caught coronavirus.

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 his country.

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."

However, opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who was 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.

"What should I say? It is poetic justice. President Magufuli defied the world on the struggle against corona (...) He defied science," he told AFP.

Lissu added: "What has happened, happened. He went down with corona."

Prayers instead of masks

Magufuli came to power as a corruption-busting man of the people, but for many observers his handling of the pandemic cast his leadership style into sharp relief.

The devout Christian claimed faith had saved the country from Covid-19, championing prayers over face masks and stopping virus figures from being published.

However, by February, cases were soaring to such an extent that the church, schools and other public institutions openly issued warnings about the spread of the virus.

Then the first vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, died after his political party admitted he had the coronavirus.

Under mounting pressure, Magufuli appeared to concede the virus existed.

"When this respiratory disease erupted last year, we won because we put God first and took other measures. I'm sure we will win again if we do so this time around," he said.

"We will all die, whether with this disease or malaria or any others," Magufuli added. "Let's go back to God, maybe we messed up somewhere."

'Bulldozing everything'

Magufuli was first elected in 2015 on a fiery anti-corruption stance which endeared him to a population weary of graft scandals.

He quickly took wildly popular decisions, such as scrapping lavish independence day celebrations in favour of a street clean-up and banning unnecessary foreign trips for officials.

Several headline-grabbing incidents saw him showing up in person to demand why civil servants were not at their desks, while in one case officials were briefly jailed for being late.

However, his tendency to flout due process and act on a whim alarmed foreign allies over the squeezing of democracy in one of East Africa's most stable nations.

His re-election in October last year was dismissed as a sham by the opposition and diplomats.

It took place under an oppressive military presence after a crackdown on the opposition and the blocking of foreign media and observer teams.

"I think he is actually bulldozing everything, laws, human rights, everything," said Aikande Kwayu, a Tanzanian political analyst.

Under his rule a series of tough media laws were passed while arrests of journalists, activists and opposition members soared, and several opposition figures were killed.

Magufuli called for teenage mothers to be kicked out of schools, while rights groups slammed an unprecedented crackdown on the LGBT community under his rule.

Humble beginnings

Magufuli's supporters praised his crackdown on corruption, an energetic infrastructure drive as well as a shake-up in the mining industry which saw him renegotiating contracts with foreign companies to improve the country's share in its own resources.

He expanded free education, increased rural electrification and embarked on the construction of a key railway and a massive hydropower dam set to double electricity output in the country.

"I know what it means to be poor," said the late leader, who grew up in a grass-thatched home, herding cattle and selling milk and fish to support his family northwestern Chato district, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

He was awarded a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Dar es Salaam and also spent some time studying at Britain's University of Salford.

Magufuli was a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has been in power since independence from Britain in the early 1960s.

A member of parliament since 1995, he held various cabinet portfolios, including livestock, fisheries and public works, where he earned the "Bulldozer" moniker.

He is survived by his wife and five children.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)