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OBITUARY-Tanzania's 'Bulldozer' president and COVID-19 sceptic dies

OBITUARY-Tanzania's 'Bulldozer' president and COVID-19 sceptic dies

· 03/17/2021 17:27
OBITUARY-Tanzania's 'Bulldozer' president and COVID-19 sceptic dies

- Tanzania's President John Magufuli, admired by followers for his hostility to corruption and waste but regarded by foes as an irascible authoritarian intolerant of dissent and sceptical about COVID-19, has died aged 61.

He was nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his fondness for massive public works and a reputation for pushing through policies despite opposition - a hard-charging leadership style that won support from many Tanzanians.

But he also attracted criticism at home and abroad for what opponents saw as his eccentric handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said on Wednesday he had died of heart illness, days after officials denied he had fallen ill amid rumours that he had contracted COVID-19. nL1N2LF3F1

Mangufuli decried lockdowns, was sceptical of COVID-19 drugs and suggested vaccines may be part of a foreign plot to steal Africa's wealth.

"Vaccines are not good. If they were, then the white man would have brought vaccines for HIV/AIDS," he said. "Tanzanians should be careful with these imported things. You should not think that they love you a lot. This nation is rich, Africa is rich, everyone wants some of it." nL1N2K21FV nL1N2K21FV

The government stopped reporting statistics for new cases and deaths in May last year when it had registered 509 cases and 21 deaths. Magufuli had questioned coronavirus testing kits - which he said had returned positive results on a goat and pawpaw fruit. He declared the pandemic over and reopened the economy. nL8N2EA2G8

But the death in February of a senior politician from the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar raised concerns about a hidden pandemic running amok in the East African nation. nL4N2KN2Y7

Magufuli's approach caused alarm at the World Health Organization, prompting its head to implore Tanzania to improve public health measures, prepare to distribute vaccines and start reporting coronavirus cases and sharing data.nL1N2KQ0KT


QUICK RISE TO INFLUENCE

Born in the village of Chato in the Geita region of northwestern Tanzania, Magufuli was first elected to parliament in 1995 from his home constituency.

A former chemistry teacher, he quickly climbed the political ladder and served in various cabinet roles, including as minister of works, before he won the presidency in 2015.

During his first presidential campaign he captured headlines by doing push-ups at a rally to demonstrate his physical fitness for office. His cost-cutting including cancelling independence day festivities and restricting foreign travel by officials.

He was re-elected for a second term in 2020, winning 84% of the vote in a ballot the opposition said was marred by irregularities and whose results it rejected. nL1N2HL1QW

Upon re-election, he promised to build on his agenda of fighting corruption and reducing wasteful public spending, moves which won him praise in his first term.

Magufuli, in no-nonsense style, would make unannounced inspection visits to government departments, and once sacked senior managers at Tanzania's main public hospital, saying they were not delivering. He also purged thousands of "ghost workers" from the government, and reduced his own salary as part of spending cuts. https://reut.rs/2NHdzmc

He was tough on businesses when he thought they were under-paying taxes. In 2017, his government accused gold producer Acacia Mining of evading taxes and under-declaring exports, hitting it with a $190 billion tax bill. https://www.reuters.com/article/acacia-mining-tanzania-idUSL5N1KF5CE

Barrick Gold Corp, which owned the majority of Acacia and eventually bought it out, agreed to pay Tanzania $300 million to settle tax and other disputes.nL8N29T1HE

Critics said Magufuli had presided over a deterioration of the political scene, after his administration arrested opposition leaders, suspended some newspapers and restricted political rallies. The government denies suppressing dissent.

Among those critics is opposition leader Tundu Lissu, shot 16 times by unknown gunmen in the administrative capital Dodoma in September 2017. nL5N2EY3MT

He accused the state of trying to kill him, which the government denied. Magufuli condemned the shooting and ordered security forces to investigate, but no one has been arrested. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics-idUSKCN24S15Z

On the economic front, he embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects in the hope of supercharging East Africa's third largest economy.

These included a railway, a hydropower project and the revival of state carrier Air Tanzania, spending billions of dollars in the process. nL1N2HE0U8


UPDATE 3-Tanzania's President John Magufuli dead at 61, vice president announcesnL1N2LF3F1

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; editing by William Maclean)

((omar.mohammed@thomsonreuters.com; +254 20 499 1232; Reuters Messaging: omar.mohammed.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))