Condolences poured in following the announcement of the death of Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, while an opposition leader called for the immediate swearing in of his deputy to avoid a constitutional vacuum after two weeks of uncertainty around the health of the country’s leadership.
Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan addressed the nation on state television late on Wednesday, saying Magufuli had died from the heart disease that had plagued him for a decade. She said burial arrangements were under way for the 61-year-old leader but did not indicate when she would be sworn in.
“The VP has to be sworn in immediately,” opposition leader Zitto Kabwe told Reuters by phone from Dar es Salaam on Thursday morning.
“The constitution doesn’t allow a vacuum, once it was official that the president has died, the next step was for the vice president to be sworn in.”
According to Tanzania’s Constitution, Vice President Hassan, 61, should assume the presidency for the remainder of the five-year term that Magufuli began serving last year after winning a second term. She would be the East African nation’s first female president and the only female currently holding executive power in the region.
Government spokesman Hassan Abbasi did not respond to calls and texts seeking comment on succession plans.
Magufuli had not been seen in public since Feb. 27, sparking rumours he had contracted COVID-19. On March 12, officials denied he had fallen ill and on Monday the vice president urged Tanzanians not to listen to rumours from outside the country, saying it was normal for a person to be checked for the flu or fever.
Nicknamed “The Bulldozer” because of his reputation for pushing through policies despite opposition, Magufuli drew international criticism for his unorthodox and increasingly authoritarian tactics.
“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,” the United States State Department said in a statement late on Wednesday.
Although Hassan, the vice president, publicly championed Magufuli’s leadership style and frequently represented him abroad, she has been more soft spoken, less confrontational and more available for media interviews than the president.
Magufuli was a vocal COVID-19 sceptic who urged Tanzanians to shun mask-wearing and denounced vaccines as a Western conspiracy, frustrating the World Health Organization.
Tanzania stopped reporting coronavirus data in May last year when it had reported 509 cases and 21 deaths.
“Dear Tanzanians, it is sad to announce that today 17 March 2021 around 6 p.m. we lost our brave leader, President John Magufuli who died from heart disease at Mzena hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was getting treatment,” the vice president said on state broadcaster TBC.
He was Tanzania’s first president to die while in office.
On Thursday morning, traffic moved normally and there was not a heavy security presence in Dar es Salaam, the country’s biggest city, a Reuters witness said.
Some people stood on street corners in the downtown area reading newspapers including a headline blaring “Grief” and wept.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic in Tanzania, many people were not wearing face masks.
Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, Dar es Salaam resident Issa Rashid said: “This news has made me so sad, losing our president. He worked so well and would have made our country become prosperous like a European nation.”
After the death was announced, Tundu Lissu, Magufuli’s main rival in the October election when the president won a second five-year term, said it was time for the country to open a new chapter.
“President Magufuli in the five years he was president caused havoc to our country,” he said in an interview with Kenya’s KTN news.
Lissu, a fierce critic of Magufuli’s government, was shot 16 times in an attack by unknown gunmen in the administrative capital Dodoma in September 2017 and lives in exile in Belgium.