Tanzania’s ‘Bulldozer’ president, a Covid-19 sceptic, dies at 61

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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 covid 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.

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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.”

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.

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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.