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Magufuli, Tanzania's 'Bulldozer,' Remembered

A man holds a newspapers following the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 18, 2021.
A man holds a newspapers following the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 18, 2021.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who died Wednesday at age 61, was straightforward and unpredictable but also a skillful politician. He branded himself as a man of action, a departure from the more modest, stately styles of his predecessors.

Vice President Samia Hassan announced his death to the nation, saying Magufuli had succumbed to heart disease at Mzena Hospital in Dar es Salaam.

Born in 1959 to a peasant farmer, Magufuli entered politics in 1995, when he was elected to parliament. As public works minister, a post he served in from 2000 to 2005 and 2010 to 2015, he was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his stewardship of programs to build roads, railways and other infrastructure. He came to the presidency in 2015 on a platform of fighting corruption.

His handling of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year was widely criticized. He urged Tanzanians to put their faith in home remedies and dismissed vaccines and lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus as a Western conspiracy.

At a funeral earlier this year, Magufuli asked religious leaders to insist on prayers and said God had never left his nation.

Magufuli's death came after a long absence from the public, which had sparked rumors that he contracted COVID-19.

Reactions vary

Reaction to his passing was mixed. Many, like Rajabu Mdundu, said the country had lost a man of the people.

He said Magufuli was a man of action and a leader who put the interests of every Tanzanian citizen first. He added that the president had always urged people to work hard. Although Magufuli has left us, Mdundu said, his slogan, “Strictly business,” will last.

Some political analysts, like Onesmo Kyauke, agreed that Magufuli had left his country more prosperous.

He said Magufuli had left a country in which corruption has decreased and implemented discipline in the government that was not there before. Magufuli left Tanzania with many projects, such as airports and electricity infrastructure, that will boost the country’s economy, he said.

But Magufuli was also criticized for actions that many saw as threatening freedom of expression. Ado Shaibu, secretary-general of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency party, said some opposition priorities received no attention under Magufuli’s leadership, and he urged the president's successor, Hassan, to accent economic and political issues and human rights.

Hassan, as the East African nation's first female president, will lead the country for the remainder of Magufuli’s term, until 2025.