Tanzania's populist President John Magufuli has died at 61

Full Screen
1 / 18

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Saturday, July 11, 2015 file photo, Tanzania's then public works minister and presidential candidate John Magufuli speaks at an internal party poll to decide the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party's presidential candidate, which they later chose him to be, in Dodoma, Tanzania. President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a prominent COVID-19 skeptic whose populist rule often cast his country in a harsh international spotlight, has died aged 61 of heart failure, it was announced Wednesday, March 17, 2021 by Vice President Samia Suluhu. (AP Photo/Khalfan Said, File)

NAKURU – President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a prominent COVID-19 skeptic in Africa whose populist rule often cast his East African country in a harsh international spotlight, has died. He was 61 years old.

Magufuli's death was announced on Wednesday by Vice President Samia Suluhu, who said the president died of heart failure.

“Our beloved president passed on at 6 p.m. this evening," said Suluhu on national television. “All flags will be flown at half-mast for 14 days. It is sad news. The president has had this illness for the past 10 years.”

The vice president said that Magufuli died at a hospital in Dar es Salaam, the Indian Ocean port that is Tanzania's largest city.

Although the vice president said the cause of Magufuli’s death was heart failure, opposition politicians had earlier alleged that he was sick from COVID-19.

Magufuli had not been seen in public since the end of February and top government officials had denied that he was in ill health even as rumors swirled online that he was sick and possibly incapacitated from illness.

Magufuli was one of Africa's most prominent deniers of COVID-19. He had said last year that Tanzania had eradicated the disease through three days of national prayer. Tanzania has not reported its COVID-19 tallies of confirmed cases and deaths to African health authorities since April 2020.

But the number of deaths of people experiencing breathing problems reportedly grew and earlier this month the U.S. embassy warned of a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tanzania since January. Days later the presidency announced the death of John Kijazi, Magufuli’s chief secretary. Soon after the death was announced of the vice president of the semi-autonomous island region of Zanzibar, whose political party had earlier reported that he had COVID-19.