Tanzanian President John Magufuli dead at 61

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July 5 (UPI) — Tanzanian President John Magufuli died at a hospital in the port city of Dar es Salaam after he was last seen in public two weeks ago, officials said Wednesday. He was 61.

Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said Magufuli died of heart complications during treatment at Mzena Hospital, noting that he had experienced chronic atrial fibrillation for more than a decade.

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She added that funeral plans were underway and flags will fly at half-staff throughout the nation.

Magufuli was last seen in public on Feb. 27, prompting speculation that he was hospitalized with COVID-19 after he had downplayed the threat of the virus to the nation’s citizens, urging them to combat it with prayer rather than masking and social distancing.

The government has repeatedly denied these claims.

Magufuli, a trained chemist and former teacher, served as Tanzania’s minister of public works from 2005 until he was elected president in 2015.

He earned the nickname “the bulldozer” in reference to both his blunt leadership style and his commitment to improving Tanzania’s infrastructure.

Early in his presidency, Magufuli was lauded for fighting corruption and bolstering the economy but came under fire later in his term for shutting down dissent and freedom of expression, and implementing laws that tightened his party’s hold on political power.

In his first term, Magufuli banned opposition rallies, eliminated licenses for non-governmental organizations and faced criticism for failing to investigate killings and abductions of journalists who were critical of the government.

Ahead of his second term, he took steps to make it difficult for opposition parties to campaign and blocked opposition representatives from polling stations as he won the election with 84% of the vote amid allegations of widespread fraud.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Magufuli said that “vaccines don’t work” and his handling of the virus prompted condemnation from the World Health Organization, the Catholic Church and the U.S. Embassy.