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Tanzanian President John Magufuli, A COVID-19 Skeptic, Has Died

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president of Tanzania has died. He was nicknamed the bulldozer because of his toughness on corruption but was also known as the most ardent COVID denier in Africa. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: When John Pombe Magufuli took power in 2005, he was a sensation. He was a technocrat who ran a bunch of Tanzania's government ministries. And when he became president, he stopped public employees from enjoying foreign travel and he canceled expensive public displays. When it came to corruption, he suffered no fools. Take this scene from 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERALTA: He was inaugurating a bridge. But amid all of the fanfare, he asked a political ally in charge of the bridge to explain how this project was marred by corruption. The ally detailed million-dollar kickback schemes, and Magufuli got angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN POMBE MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: What should I do, he asks. And the crowd screams, fire him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAGUFULI: (Speaking Swahili).

(CHEERING)

PERALTA: "There is no room in my administration for officials who feed off the blood of the poor," he says. And as the crowd cheers, he fires his ally right there in public.

P L O LUMUMBA: This is a gentleman who came into Tanzania, injected discipline only reminiscent of the days of Mwalimu Kambarage Nyerere.

PERALTA: That is P.L.O. Lumumba, a leading intellectual in East Africa. He compares Magufuli to Tanzania's liberation hero, Julius Nyerere. Lumumba says Magufuli not only fought corruption, but he decried foreign interference, he defied the West and even China when he rejected what he termed predatory loans.

LUMUMBA: Of course, there'll be no shortage of people who'll want to say a few things against him, but like Saint-Just said, nobody can govern guiltlessly. That is the nature of humanity.

PERALTA: Indeed, Magufuli went after his detractors with authoritarian zeal. Politicians, journalists and prominent critics went missing. Even citizens who defied Magufuli on social media were jailed. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Magufuli, who had a Ph.D. in chemistry, became an ardent COVID denier. He urged Tanzanians to keep living life as normal. And when it came time for Tanzania to sign up for vaccines, his government said it didn't need any. Then last month, as a new wave of coronavirus swept the country, Magufuli disappeared. Opposition leaders said he had contracted COVID-19, and yesterday his vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, said he died from heart failure. She said nothing of COVID-19. Here's Tundu Lissu, who was Magufuli's biggest rival.

TUNDU LISSU: This is a president who has thumbed his nose to the world, refused any international or regional cooperation to deal with COVID-19. And now he goes down with COVID-19. That is poetic justice to me.

PERALTA: Back in 2017, he survived an assassination attempt. And last year, after he disputed a presidential election, he went into exile. He has no kind words for John Pombe Magufuli. He turned Tanzania into an authoritarian state, he says. But maybe Magufuli will leave a different legacy.

LISSU: Because his actions hurt so many people, I think when we speak now the language of reform, people will know what we are talking about.

PERALTA: Maybe the trauma of John Pombe Magufuli will turn Tanzania into a democracy. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.