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Tanzania's President John Magufuli leaves after inspecting a guard of honour during his official visit to Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli, whose death was confirmed on March 17, 2021, leaves a legacy of repression and serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. His death provides an opportunity for the new leadership in Tanzania to take concrete steps to reverse the country’s downward human rights trajectory and ensure accountability for past abuses.

“Over the past six years, President Magufuli oversaw abusive laws and policies that seriously undermined human rights in Tanzania,” said Otsieno Namwaya, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government now has a chance for a fresh start by ending problematic past practices.”

President Magufuli was last seen in public on February 27, and the media reported that he was seriously ill due to Covid-19-related complications that could have aggravated an existing heart condition. However, government officials insisted that he was well and threatened to arrest journalists who published news of his health. In March, police in Iringa and Dar es Salaam arrested at least four people for “distributing fabricated information” about the president’s health.

On March 17, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan said in a public address that Magufuli had died of a heart attack at a hospital in Dar es Salaam. The vice president is expected to assume leadership as president until 2025, when Magufuli’s term was to end.

Magufuli was first elected president of Tanzania in 2015. In October 2020, he won a second term in presidential elections marred by serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and detention of scores of opposition party leaders and supporters. In the weeks ahead of the elections, the authorities suspended television and radio stations, censored mobile phone communication, arrested activists and journalists, and blocked social media. On the eve of elections, police fired live ammunition into crowds on the semi-autonomous island archipelago of Zanzibar, killing at least three people. The authorities continued to threaten and pursue opposition leaders and supporters even after Magufuli was declared the winner of the October vote.

Since Magufuli first took office, the authorities have increasingly cracked down on the media and civil society groups by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to withdraw the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government also placed restrictions on the political opposition and gave the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to withdraw registration from parties.

In 2017, Magufuli banned pregnant girls and teenage mothers from attending school and prohibited family planning. This was followed by crackdowns on individuals and organizations seen as critical of these policies. The authorities censored and suspended newspapers and radio stations for publishing or airing material critical of Magufuli’s presidency. The government also arbitrarily arrested – and in some cases brought harassing prosecutions against – journalists, activists, and opposition politicians perceived to be government critics.

Magufuli declared Tanzania free of Covid-19 in June 2020, after which the authorities imposed new restrictions on media outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19. They fined and suspended licenses of media companies and summoned media professionals over coverage of the pandemic.

“With Magufuli’s passing, the urgent need for justice for his many victims of abuse is clearer than ever,” Namwaya said. “The new leadership should not commit another injustice against Tanzanians by allowing these abuses to go unpunished.”

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