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Mixed Emotions Over Death of Controversial Tanzanian Leader

A man reads a newspaper with a headline announcing the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, on March 18, 2021.
A man reads a newspaper with a headline announcing the death of Tanzania's President John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam, on March 18, 2021.

A great son of Africa. An independent leader who refused to bow to foreign powers. An anti-corruption crusader. A COVID-19 denier. A budding authoritarian.

Across the African continent and the world, reactions are streaming in — both loving and searing — over the death of Tanzanian President John Magufuli.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa was one of the first to express his “deep sadness” in a short statement Thursday morning after receiving the news that Magufuli had died.

“South Africa is united in grief with the government and people of Tanzania,” Ramaphosa said.

Magufuli was only 61 and died under mysterious circumstances. Officially, according to Tanzanian government sources, the Tanzanian president died of heart disease. He had not appeared in public for more than two weeks, and opposition politicians claimed he had contracted COVID-19.

Magufuli stood alone among African leaders in denying the existence of the virus in his country. Last June, he declared his coastal nation free of the virus — a claim that many African health experts questioned.

As one of the continent’s most respected leaders, Ramaphosa set the tone for much of the comment from the continent in the wake of Magufuli’s death. Leaders and luminaries from Nigeria, Uganda, Somalia, Zimbabwe and former African power Britain were quick to issue statements mourning his death.

Ghana-based Sarfo Abebrese, founding president of the Coalition of Supporters Unions of Africa, which promotes African cooperation, said Magufuli’s reach extended across the continent.

“It is not just the citizens of Tanzania that he ruled over,” he said. “We all received the news with a lot of sadness, especially because we all knew him as a great son of the continent of Africa. And you know, he is one of the few leaders that believed in his continent's abilities, despised and acted against corruption, and chose to be a true African statesman.”

Activist Daniel Mwambonu, who heads the Global Pan Africanism Network, described Magufuli’s death as a “terrible blow.”

“He has demonstrated the selfless leadership and people-driven leadership that continues to inspire the young generation,” Mwambonu said. “And utilizing the natural resources that Tanzania has, he has been able to develop Tanzania from a Third World country into a middle-class economy within just a short period of time. He has built the railways, utilizing Tanzanians’ taxpayer money, without begging for foreign aid. And these are the kind of leaders who we need in Africa.”

But Magufuli was not without his critics. Also on Thursday, opposition leaders and analysts from the continent and beyond criticized him for his increasingly tight grip on civil liberties and the media in Tanzania, and on his denial of the pandemic.

Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said Magufuli’s legacy is complicated.

”On the one hand, there will be those who cite him as a transformational leader who reduced corruption and strengthened the Tanzanian state and government,” he said. “On the other hand, there are going to be people who point to his legacy on COVID-19 and suggest that ordinary Tanzanians died when they didn't have to as a result of his neglect.

“One of the key issues I think that's going to come up will be whether or not in the wake of his passing, Tanzania will move back onto a kind of democratizing pathway after what's often perceived to be a significant authoritarian turn under his leadership.”

On that, Cheeseman is not holding his breath. He believes Tanzania will more likely see “more continuity than change.”

Perhaps the most telling reaction from outside of East Africa came from the U.S. State Department, which released a brief statement, saying little about Magufuli.

“We extend our condolences to Tanzanians mourning the passing of President John Pombe Magufuli. ... The United States remains committed to continuing to support Tanzanians as they advocate for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and work to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that Tanzania can move forward on a democratic and prosperous path,” the statement said.

Those condolences were a contrast to the U.S.’s empathetic message last week marking the death of South African ceremonial leader King Goodwill Zwelithini, in which the State Department said “we mourn the loss of King Zwelithini, and our thoughts remain with the royal family and all who mourn him.”

The U.S. is the largest bilateral donor to Tanzania.