Tanzania's new President Samia Suluhu Hassan says the country should unite and avoid pointing fingers after the death of John Magufuli, her Covid-19 sceptic predecessor, urging the east African country to look forward with hope and confidence.

Tanzania's new President Samia Suluhu Hassan takes oath of office following the death of her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania March 19, 2021.
Tanzania's new President Samia Suluhu Hassan takes oath of office following the death of her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania March 19, 2021. (Reuters)

Samia Suluhu Hassan has been sworn in as Tanzania's first female president after her predecessor, John Magufuli, died suddenly from a mystery-shrouded illness.

Hassan, 61, a soft-spoken ruling party stalwart from the island of Zanzibar, will finish Magufuli's second five-year term, set to run until 2025.

Wearing a bright red headscarf, Hassan, who is Muslim, on Friday was sworn in at a ceremony in Dar es Salaam, where neither she nor the majority of attendees wore a mask, in the Covid-sceptic nation.

"I can assure Tanzanians that there is nothing that will go wrong during this time. We will start where Magufuli ended," she said in a brief speech after she took the oath of office, inspected a special guard, and received a 21-gun salute.

"Let us all be patient and unite as we move forward."

READ MORE: Tanzania's President Magufuli dies of 'heart condition'

She becomes the only other current serving female head of state in Africa alongside Ethiopia's Sahle-Work Zewde, whose role is mainly ceremonial, whereas the president in Tanzania is also head of government.

Questions over cause of Magufuli's death

Hassan was little known outside Tanzania until she appeared on state television on Wednesday night to announce that Magufuli, absent from public view for three weeks, had died from a heart condition.

But questions have been raised over the true cause of the 61-year-old's death, after rumours that the famously Covid-sceptic leader had sought treatment abroad for coronavirus.

Main opposition leader Tundu Lissu insists his sources said Magufuli had Covid-19 and had actually died a week ago.

And Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper, which last week reported an "African leader", in a clear reference to Magufuli, was in a Nairobi hospital, on Friday gave more details of his illness, also indicating Magufuli had in fact died last week.

The paper, which did not detail its sources, said Magufuli was discharged from Nairobi Hospital on life support after it was determined he could not be resuscitated, and returned to Dar es Salaam, where he died last Thursday.

The paper said Magufuli had initially been evacuated to Nairobi on March 8 in a medical plane suffering from "acute cardiac and respiratory illnesses."

Hassan announced Magufuli would be buried next Thursday in his hometown of Chato in northwest Tanzania.

Citizens have been invited to pay their respects at events in other cities from Saturday. Former presidents have typically been displayed in an open casket, but it is unclear whether this will be the case for Magufuli.

Magufuli had declared 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 the vaccines as "dangerous".

But by February, as cases soared and the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died from Covid-19, Magufuli conceded the virus was still circulating.

READ MORE: Tanzania’s policy towards Covid-19 has been to deny it

A new chapter?

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, nicknamed the "Bulldozer", and all eyes will be on her handling of the pandemic.

Magufuli leaves behind a complex legacy, his popular no-nonsense attitude and anti-graft stance marred by a swing to authoritarianism in which he cracked down on the media, activists, and free speech.

The opposition and rights groups have urged Hassan to change course.

"As we continue mourning, let us use this period to open up a new chapter for rebuilding national unity and respect to freedom, justice, rule of law, democracy, and people-centred development," said Freeman Mbowe, head of opposition group Chadema, in a statement on Thursday.

He urged Hassan to "lead the nation toward reconciliation."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the new government "has a chance for a fresh start by ending problematic past practices."

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'Hold your breath'

But analysts say Hassan will face early pressure from Magufuli allies in the party who dominate intelligence and other key positions, and will try to shape her decisions and agenda.

"For those who were kind of expecting a breakaway from the Magufuli way of things I would say, 'hold your breath at the moment'," said Thabit Jacob, a Tanzania expert at Denmark's Roskilde University.

Hailing from Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island in the Indian Ocean, Hassan rose through the ranks over a 20-year political career from local government to the national assembly.

She was named Magufuli's running mate in the 2015 presidential campaign and the pair were re-elected in October last year in a disputed poll marred by allegations of irregularities.

Magufuli is the second East African leader to die under mysterious circumstances.

Burundi's equally Covid-sceptic leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, died from "heart failure" last June after his wife was flown to Nairobi to be treated for coronavirus.

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Source: AFP