Tanzanian President Magufuli dies at 61

President John Magufuli of Tanzania, a prominent COVID-19 sceptic whose populist rule often cast his East African country in a harsh international spotlight, has died aged 61.

Magufuli's death was announced on Wednesday by Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who said the president died of heart failure after a more than two-week absence from public life that led to speculation about his health.

Hassan said he died from the heart disease that had plagued him for a decade. She said burial arrangements were under way and announced 14 days of mourning and the flying of flags at half staff. State television broadcast mournful and religious songs.

According to Tanzania's Constitution, Hassan, 61, should assume the presidency for the remainder of Magufuli's five-year term. She would be the East African nation's first female president.

Magufuli had not been seen in public since February 27, sparking rumours he had contracted COVID-19. Officials denied on March 12 that he had fallen ill and on Monday the vice-president urged Tanzanians not to listen to rumours from outside the country.

Magufuli was one of Africa's most prominent deniers of COVID-19. He had said last year that Tanzania had eradicated the disease through three days of national prayer.

Tanzania has not reported its COVID-19 tallies of confirmed cases and deaths to African health authorities since April 2020. But the number of deaths of people experiencing breathing problems reportedly grew and earlier this month the US embassy warned of a significant increase in the number of COVID cases in Tanzania since January.

First elected to the presidency in 2015, Magufuli was serving a second five-year term won in 2020 elections that the opposition and rights groups said were neither free nor fair.

His main opponent, Tundu Lissu, had to relocate to Belgium after the vote, fearing for his safety. Lissu had been shot 16 times back in 2017, an attack he blamed on government agents because of his criticism of the president.

Magufuli had become so powerful by the start of the COVID outbreak that he could deny the existence of a pandemic without incurring the criticism of his predecessor and other prominent people in Tanzania.

In early 2021, amid speculation that Magufuli would seek an unconstitutional third term when his mandate expired in 2025, his ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party was compelled to deny such a thing could happen.

John Pombe Magufuli was born on October 29, 1959, in the rural area of Chato in the country's northwest.

The son of a subsistence farmer gained a doctorate in chemistry. For years he was a secondary school teacher and then a chemist with a farmers' co-operative union before entering politics.