Zanzibar, Tanzania – Condolences streamed in from across the world on Thursday after the death of Tanzanian President John Magufuli, as many wonder how the East African country could change in the absence of a leader who was loved, loathed and feared.

In a televised address, the country’s Vice President Samia Suluhu said the 61-year-old president had died of a “heart condition” at a hospital in Dar-Es-Salaam, an illness she said he had been battling for the last 10 years.

“We have lost our formidable leader” she said. The country will begin a two-week mourning period, as funeral preparations are under way.

As with much of his five-year presidency, Magufuli’s health decline and subsequent death was marred by controversy. The president disappeared from public view in late February, leading to widespread speculation that he had contracted COVID-19.

As recently as last week, government officials said the president was in good health and working hard. Several individuals have been arrested for spreading rumours that the president was sick. The groundswell of speculation about his health came after Magufuli, who had previously played down the threat of the coronavirus, admitted that COVID-19 still posed a threat in Tanzania.

From infrastructure development to the suppression of political and civil rights, Magufuli’s leadership has left a significant legacy that many are yet to fully comprehend.

“You fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith” tweeted Humphrey Pole Pole, publicity and ideology secretary for the president’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, and prominent Magufuli loyalist.

The leader of opposition ACT Wazalendo party, Zitto Kabwe, described the situation as unprecedented and “one that will move us all in very personal ways”.

In a tweet on Thursday, lawyer and rights activist Fatma Karume described the Magufuli administration as a “horrendous” five years.

“But I am grateful and proud that I kept my humanity even when evil was the order of the day. Thank you to all who made these 5 years bearable” she said on Twitter.

Uncertain future

The Constitution provides that in circumstances of death, the vice president should assume leadership and finish the present term, until the next election.

As such, the soft-spoken Hassan, who hails from the semi-autonomous Zanzibar region, would become the first female leader in Tanzania and the East African region at large.

However, as of late Thursday, there was no confirmation about plans for an inauguration ceremony. The vice president will address the nation on Friday regarding burial arrangements for Magufuli, government spokesman Hassan Abbasi said on state TV on Thursday evening.

“During this difficult time, we look on the incoming president to provide the leadership and unity that we need. We wish her blessings, courage and patience” said Kabwe.

Her ascendancy to the presidency would raise questions about whether there may be a change in the direction of politics and policy in the country, particularly regarding the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and in the areas of civic and political rights; two sets of issues on which Magufuli had attracted sharp criticism.

Former Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete and Tanzania’s Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan attend the inauguration ceremony of Burundi’s President elect Evariste Ndayishimiye [File: Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters]

Columnist and political analyst Elsie Eyakuze said she hoped that the opposition would find new platforms that would enrich and diversify public life.

“I envision that many restrictions pertaining to civic freedoms might relax, and I am anticipating a change in political flavour as happens with every incumbent. I cannot possibly speculate on what his death means for the ruling party. My hope is that we might return to the multiparty democracy we were working on developing between 1995 and 2015,” said Eyakuze.

Dan Paget, a lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, agreed it was too early to know how Magufuli’s death would affect the ruling party.

“It is not clear how the regime’s actions will change, but a new leader is an opportunity to wash away the sins of the past, in words even if not in deeds. I expect at least a feigning of reform, perhaps a change of course on COVID-19, and token liberalisations. Whether or not Tanzania changes its course on authoritarianism or anything else depends on to what extent there is a changing of the guard,” he said.





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