Tanzania gives hero's burial to president who denied virus

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Military officers carry the coffin of former President John Magufuli, draped with the national flag, during a funeral service in his home town of Chato, Tanzania, Friday, March 26, 2021. Some thousands have gathered in the northwestern town of Chato for the burial of former Tanzanian President John Magufuli whose denial of COVID-19 brought the country international criticism. (AP Photo)

DAR ES SALAAM – Tanzania has given a hero's burial to President John Magufuli, who died earlier this month after denying that COVID-19 was a danger to the East African country.

Magufuli's coffin was lowered into the ground Friday by military generals followed by a 21-gun salute in Chato, his hometown in the country's northwest.

Magufuli was one of Africa’s most prominent COVID-19 skeptics. Even though his government announced on March 17 that he had died of heart failure, opposition leaders charge that he died of complications from COVID-19.

Magufuli claimed last year that three days of national prayer had eradicated COVID-19 from Tanzania and discouraged residents from wearing face masks and getting vaccines.

An estimated 3,500 mourners gathered, many of them unmasked and standing close together, on a soccer field for a Catholic mass for Magufuli that was presided over by Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga and more than 20 priests.

Former President Jakaya Kikwete delivered a eulogy in Swahili, remembering Magufuli as a longtime friend and confidante. “I nominated him for the presidency and I had no doubt,” he said, describing Magufuli as “an honest, hardworking, attentive leader who does not tolerate negligence.”

Also attending the burial was President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the former vice president who succeeded Magufuli to become Tanzania's first woman president.

Many Tanzanians followed the proceedings on live TV and radio in the country of 60 million where the populist leader was admired by many for his pugnacious style of leadership and action against corruption.