Tanzania has given a hero’s burial to President John Magufuli, who died earlier this month after denying that Covid-19 was a danger to the east African country.
The coffin was lowered into the ground by military generals followed by a 21-gun salute in Chato, his home town in the country’s north west.
Mr Magufuli was one of Africa’s most prominent Covid-19 sceptics. Even though his government announced on March 17 that he had died of heart failure, opposition leaders claim he died of complications from Covid-19.
He had claimed last year that three days of national prayer had eradicated Covid-19 from Tanzania and discouraged residents from wearing face masks and getting vaccines.
An estimated 3,500 mourners gathered, many of them unmasked and standing close together, on a football field for a Catholic mass for Mr Magufuli, presided over by Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga and more than 20 priests.
Former president Jakaya Kikwete delivered a eulogy in Swahili, remembering Mr Magufuli as a longtime friend and confidante.
“I nominated him for the presidency and I had no doubt,” he said, describing Mr Magufuli as “an honest, hardworking, attentive leader who does not tolerate negligence”.
Also attending the burial was Samia Suluhu Hassan, the former vice president who succeeded Mr Magufuli to become Tanzania’s first female president.
Many Tanzanians followed the proceedings on live TV and radio in the country of 60 million where the populist leader was admired by many for his pugnacious style and action against corruption.
But others are critical of his legacy, saying his rule reduced fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly.
Opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who came second in elections in October that were marred by violence and widespread allegations of rigging, maintains Mr Magufuli died of Covid-19.
Mr Lissu, in exile in Belgium fearing for his life after refusing to accept the election results, was among the first to note Mr Magufuli’s absence from public view before his death.
Mr Magufuli had not been seen in public since February 27, when he swore in a new chief secretary after his predecessor died with what many speculate was Covid-19. For days government officials denied Mr Magufuli was ill, claiming he was simply busy.
“President Magufuli defied the world, defied science, defied common sense in his approach to Covid-19 and it finally brought him down,” Mr Lissu told the Associated Press last week.