Tanzanian President John Magufuli is dead

John Magufuli

Tanzania's President John Magufuli.

Photo credit: File

What you need to know:

  • His death brings to a close weeks of speculations on his whereabouts and health.
  • But it opens a new chapter for a country which had never changed governments outside of elections.

Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli is dead. Magufuli, 61, died from a heart attack, according to a televised announcement by the country’s Vice-President Samia Suluhu.

She told the country that he died on Wednesday evening, following admission to a Dar es Salaam hospital on March 6.

Ms Suluhu said Magufuli was rushed to hospital and had been attended to by heart specialists.

Tanzanian ‘bulldozer’ President John Magufuli dies at 61

“With deep shock, we announce that today, March 17, 2021, at around 6pm, we lost our great leader and President of the United Republic of Tanzania, HE Dr John Pombe Joseph Magufuli due to heart complications at the Muzena Hospital in Dar es Salaam. Plans for the funeral are underway. Our country will be in mourning for 14 days and our flags will fly half mast,” she said.

His death brings to a close weeks of speculations on his whereabouts and health. However, it also opens a new chapter for a country which has never changed governments outside of elections.

According to the Tanzanian Constitution, the Vice President takes over the remainder of the term.

The Bulldozer

With just five months into their second term, it means Vice President Samia Suluhu will become the first female President of Tanzania, and the first female Head of State in the East African Community. 

Samia Suluhu Hassan Tanzania

Tanzania's Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan. 

Photo credit: TheCitizen | Nation Media Group

Magufuli, nicknamed the Bulldozer for pushing through projects when he worked as Minister for Works,  had been missing in action since February 27, leading to rumours that he was seriously ill.

A known sceptic of Covid-19, Magufuli refused to lock down his country when neighbours did so to reduce infections. He also did not issue compulsory mask-wearing in public. Instead, he asked people to pray.

Born in October 1959 in Chato, Geita Province in north-western Tanzania, Magufuli has been the fifth President since 2015 after defeating Edward Lowassa in one of the toughest contests in the country. But he did not target politics initially.

Educated entirely in Tanzania, Magufuli was a science teacher who majored in mathematics and Chemistry and later worked as an industrial chemist at the Nyanza Cooperative Union Ltd, which managed cotton ginneries in Mwanza, northern Tanzania.

First elected to Parliament in 1995, he served in the Cabinet of Tanzania as Deputy Minister of Works from 1995 to 2000, Minister of Works from 2000 to 2006, Minister of Lands and Human Settlement from 2006 to 2008, Minister of Livestock and Fisheries from 2008 to 2010, and as Minister of Works for a second time from 2010 to 2015.

Biography: John Pombe Magufuli (1959 - 2021)

As Minister and later as President, he endeared himself to the public by fighting for efficiency. His campaigns were based on taming corruption and saving public funds as well as protection of local enterprises. 

First term

After he took office in 2015, he imposed measures to cut costs. He reduced his own foreign travel and downsized delegations travelling abroad. For example, he controversially cut down the delegation to the Commonwealth Meeting in London to four from the initial 50.

Further, he diverted funds meant for dinners or public celebrations to supporting the needy and the sick.

Magufuli also cut his own salary from Sh1.5 million a month to Sh400,000 and halved the cabinet to 15 Ministers compared to Kikwete’s 30. Several months after his election in 2015, a social media hashtag ‘What would Magufuli do’ trended in the region as people in neighbouring countries admired his apparent efficiency.

Under Magufuli, the IMF listed Tanzania among the fastest growing sub-Sahara economies, averaging 6 per cent. Last year, the World Bank admitted the country into the list of Lower Middle Income Economies, although the final process is due to be finalised by end of 2023.

Magufuli has built various infrastructure projects such as the Bagamoyo port construction, the planned oil pipeline from Uganda, the Standard Gauge Railway and capital injection into Air Tanzania.

Yet its ranking on the Corruption Perception Index has been stuck, polling 94 out of 180 countries in 2020. A report in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which ranks countries according to their press freedom said Tanzania was the most regressed country in press freedoms.

“None of the 180 countries ranked in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has suffered such a precipitous decline in recent years,” it said, accusing Magufuli of “tolerating no criticism of himself or his policies.” RSF ranked Tanzania at 124 out of 180, having dropped six places from 2019.

Initial popularity

One of the most prominent cases involved EastAfrican correspondent Erick Kabendera who had been fingered for writing critical pieces of corruption for international media. His case dragged for months which the charge sheet changing three times.

He eventually paid a fine for money laundering, tax evasion and leading organised crime. Under the plea bargain, he paid a total of $120,000 before he was released in February last year.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch termed the trial as political motivated. 

Despite his initial popularity in Tanzania, Magufuli’s regional integration credentials were often questioned. He made the fewest trips of any Tanzanian presidents to neighbouring countries and his government have often feuded with Kenya over non-tariff barriers.

They include the arresting of ‘trespassing’ cattle, burning of chicks imported from Kenya, banning of tour vans from accessing parks and lack of agreement on Covid-19 management. In all these cases though, the matters were resolved in days, but often with the backing down of Nairobi.

Magufuli has made controversial decisions including change of mining laws to allow the government right end contracts if fraud is suspected and bars companies from suing at international arbitration. One of the most long-running disputes involved Acacia Gold which Dar accused of underreporting its gold exports.

After years of protests, the firm settled a $100 million tax debt to the government and was expected to pay a further $200 million, as well as cede 16 per cent shares to the government.

Other controversies included ordering the military to but cashew nuts from farmers ostensibly to cut off middlemen. The army, however, was unable to access the markets, lowering prices of the very nuts. He was also accused of forcing pregnant school going children to stay at home even after giving birth as well as controversial policy hunting down homosexuals.