Tanzania has given a hero’s burial to its former President John Magufuli, amid claims from opposition leaders that he died from Covid-19, a virus he denied 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 insist he died of complications from Covid-19.
The 61-year-old 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.
On Thursday, a report submitted to the World Health Organization showed the most mutated variant of coronavirus yet was found in travellers from Tanzania.The discovery has prompted scientists to call for greater monitoring in Tanzania, where coronavirus statistics were last reported in May last year.
An estimated 3,500 mourners gathered at Mr Magufuli's burial, many of them unmasked and standing close together, on a football field for a Catholic mass 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, 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 said last week.