Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan on Saturday led mourners in paying their last respects to her predecessor John Magufuli, who died suddenly this week after an illness shrouded in mystery.
Mourners lined the streets of Dar es Salaam to bid farewell to the late President, some of them weeping and throwing flower petals as the casket, towed on a gun carriage by a military vehicle, was transferred from a church to Uhuru Stadium to lie in state.
“Before I saw the coffin, I didn’t believe our president was really dead,” said flower-seller Pauline Attony after watching the motorcade pass.
Hassan, who was sworn in Friday to become the country’s first female President, led a government procession filing past the coffin, which was draped in the Tanzanian flag, offering her condolences to Magufuli’s wife.
Many wore black, or the green and yellow colours of the ruling party, but few inside the stadium or among the packed crowds outside wore face masks in the Covid-sceptic country — a scepticism Magufuli himself had embodied.
“It is too soon for you to go, father. You touched our lives and we still needed you,” said one mourner, Beatrice Edward.
“We lost our defender,” said another, Suleiman Mbonde, a tradesman.
The government announced Wednesday that Magufuli, 61, had died from a heart condition at a hospital in Dar es Salaam after three weeks missing from public view.
His unexplained absence had fuelled speculation that the famously Covid-sceptic leader was being treated for coronavirus abroad.
Tundu Lissu, Tanzania’s main opposition leader, insists his sources said Magufuli had died a week earlier from the disease that he had long downplayed.
Lissu has lived in exile in Belgium since last November, after losing the presidential election against Magufuli, which he says was rigged.
Magufuli had declared that prayer had rid the country of Covid-19, refused face masks or lockdown measures, stopped the publication of case statistics and championed alternative medicine, decrying vaccines as “dangerous”.
But by February, cases had soared. After the deaths of a number of senior figures — officially from pneumonia — the president popularly known as the “Bulldozer” had to concede that the virus was still circulating.
While Hassan says she will take over where Magufuli left off, hopes are high she will usher in a change in leadership style from her predecessor, under whose rules there had been repeated attacks on the opposition.
All eyes will be on her handling of the pandemic.
A softly spoken veteran politician, Hassan will convene a special meeting of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party Saturday, where the appointment of a new deputy is expected to be discussed.
Under the constitution, the 61-year-old will serve the remainder of Magufuli’s second five-year term, which does not expire until 2025.
She has announced a 21-day mourning period. The late president will lie in state in several locations across Tanzania before his burial next Friday in his home town of Chato.