President John Magufuli, the Covid-denying leader of Tanzania, was said to have died from heart failure, which he apparently battled for more than a decade, according to the country’s new president.
Samia Suluhu Hassan said Magufuli had been receiving treatment in a Tanzanian hospital when he died on Wednesday evening.
However, opposition leaders insist Magufuli died of Covid-19 at least one week earlier.
Tundu Lissu, of the Chadema opposition party, said in an interview with a Kenyan broadcaster Thursday that Magufuli had died from Covid in early March.
“Magufuli died of corona,” Lissu said, citing “credible government sources.”
“I received news of President Magufuli’s passing without any surprise,” he added.
“I had expected this all along, from the first day I tweeted on March 7… when I asked the question ‘Where is President Magufuli and what is his state of health?’ I had information from very credible sources in the government that the president was gravely ill with Covid-19 and his situation was actually very bad,” Lissu said from his base in Belgium. CNN has contacted Lissu for further comment.
CNN has been unable to independently verify his claims. Tanzanian authorities also did not respond to calls for comment on Lissu’s claims.
Magufuli was last seen in public on February 27, fueling intense speculation about his health. Officials, however, insisted he was healthy.
“Tanzanians should be at peace. Your president is around, thanks for voting strongly for him recently. He is healthy, working hard, planning for the country,” Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa was quoted as saying in local media March 12.
The secrecy and mystery shrouding his death is telling about Magufuli’s enduring legacy, says Maria Sarungi Tsehai, activist and founder of the #ChangeTanzania movement, a civil society group promoting free speech.
Tsehai said that the circumstances of his death and the “secrecy and intimidation” that citizens face for speculating or discussing it is “very telling about the kind of presidency he ran.”
“Even now in his death, people are still terrified and talking in hushed tones,” Tsehai said.
Magufuli was Tanzania’s fifth president and part of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party that has ruled the country since independence in 1961.
Now that he is gone, Tanzania is left in flux. Many believe the country is fighting a virulent second wave of Covid. However, the reports are largely anecdotal as Tanzania stopped reporting Covid data to global health authorities, such as the World Health Organization.
The last reported figures of 509 cases and 21 deaths were in April last year.
Magufuli frustrated global health leaders after he suspended nationwide tracking of Covid cases – blaming the country’s infection toll on defective test kits.
Last May, he claimed that non-human samples which were randomly collected from a pawpaw, a goat, and sheep – using imported Covid-19 test kits – returned positive test results for the virus when sent to the country’s laboratory, whose handlers were reportedly unaware of the source of the samples.
Magufuli’s death has raised many questions about how the country moves forward in a pandemic with a massive information vacuum.
Magufuli made no bids for Covid vaccines as he queried its safety and instead promoted the use of prayers, herbal treatments and steam inhalation to combat the disease.
Tsehai says the lack of information makes it difficult for healthcare workers and citizens to know what the real situation is. Her organization ran an informal survey to get a “snapshot” of the Covid situation in the country last year.
“We are seeing more obituaries, death announcements, and that more people are leaving us. There are elderly people and those in their 50s. Parents are also telling us that children are being admitted to hospital with breathing problems,” she said.
However, changes are far from imminent, added Tsehai. “Nothing will happen immediately. We have to wait and see what Samia (Hassan) can do.”
On Friday, Hassan was sworn in as the country’s first female president.
Now, the new leader needs to select a vice presidential candidate and form a cabinet, Tsehai said.
“We are very worried. She needs to act now. The ceremony and burial and last rites ceremony are going to be Covid super spreader events,” Tsehai added.
Fighting Covid with prayers
Magufuli was devoutly religious and a rabid Covid-19 denier who repeatedly downplayed the severity of Covid-19 in Tanzania, while declaring the country free from the virus last June after three days of mass prayers.
He refused to close churches, called on citizens to join more mass prayer days and described the virus as “satanic.”
“Let’s pray and fast for three days I am sure we will win… today for the Muslims who have already begun, tomorrow the Seventh Day Adventists who pray on Saturdays and on Sunday for Christians,” Magufuli said on February 19.
“God has never forsaken this nation. We won last year and graduated to middle-income status amid coronavirus,” he added.
Deus Valentine Rweyemamu, who heads the Center for Strategic Litigation, a pro-democracy movement in Tanzania, told CNN that Magufuli failed to provide leadership in his handling of the pandemic.
“President Magufuli hid behind religious fundamentalism and managed to sway an entire nation into denialism. His only recorded public address on Covid has half of it made up of Bible verses,” Rweyemamu said.
However, religious leaders were among his fiercest critics.
Father Charles Kitima, Secretary of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, a group of Catholic bishops, told CNN Thursday that the Magufuli regime did not take urgent steps in handling the coronavirus.
Kitima, who had been a vocal critic of Tanzania’s Covid response under Magufuli, said some members of the Catholic Church in Tanzania may have died from Covid-related complications.
“Some members of the church had breathing complications and died out of that,” he told CNN.
“As for the months from mid-December 2020 to February 2021, we lost 25 priests and 60 nuns… Some of these died because of breathing difficulties,” he said.
He added that the volume of infections in the country could not be ascertained due to the lack of testing.
Kitima faulted Magufuli’s Covid response, which relied largely on religion while neglecting scientific recommendations.
“You cannot separate prayer from science. Religion is there to support the doctors and researchers. Science and faith must work together,” Kitima told CNN.
Rweyemamu told CNN that many Tanzanians trusted Magufuli’s – albeit unconventional – methods.
“If President Magufuli were to appear in public wearing a mask then even Tanzania’s sickest dog would wear one. This is because… Tanzanians believe in their president more than in their own parents,” he added.
Mussa Khamis, a project officer at Good Neighbors, a non-profit humanitarian organization in Tanzania, told CNN: “While some of my friends and relatives inhaled steam to fight this pandemic… I took care of myself by observing prevention measures advised by WHO and other medical experts.”
The 26-year-old resident of Tanzania’s semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar said the existence of Covid-19 had begun to resonate with many Tanzanians following the passing of Zanzibar’s Vice President, Seif Sharif Hamad, who died in February after contracting the virus.
Hamad was open about his illness, which he made public three weeks before his death.
“People now wear masks and wash their hands frequently. I think this is motivated by the recent loss of our vice president,” Khamis said.
The end of the Magufuli era is expected to usher in a new national perspective on Covid-19.
However, it remains to be seen if it will be business as usual for Tanzania’s new leader or if she will change tack and make room for science to thrive as the pandemic rages.