DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AP) — Thousands have gathered in the northwestern town of Chato for the burial of former Tanzanian President John Magufuli whose denial of COVID-19 brought the country international criticism.

Magufuli was one of Africa’s most prominent COVID-19 skeptics and even though his government announced that he had died of a heart failure on March 10, opposition leaders and his critics charge that he died of complications from COVID-19.

Thousands had come together unmasked earlier Friday at a mass in a football field in Magufuli’s hometown of Chato that was presided over by Archbishop Gervas Nyaisonga, President of the Tanzania Episcopal Conference.

Magufuli will be buried at 3 p.m. Friday at the town’s cemetery, the state announced.

Many more followed the proceeding on live TV and radio across the country of 60 million where the populist leader was revered by many for his pugnacious style of leadership.

Magufuli was replaced by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who had announced his death. Hassan became the first woman to become president in Tanzania.

While many Tanzanians held Magufuli in high esteem, a significant number of Tanzanians felt he was a dictator and ruled with an iron fist pushing for legislation that reduced fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly.

Felix Maluma, a trader in Dar es Salaam commonly referred to as ‘Machingas’ said he was shocked by the death of Magufuli.

“I don’t think we will have such a good leader. I pray that the next leader (President Samia Suluhu Hassan) gets the courage to fulfill the promises made by President Magufuli,” he said.

Opposition leader Tundu Lissu, who came a distant second in flawed elections in October that were marred by violence, widespread allegations of rigging and security forces barring opposition agents from verifying the vote, has stated that Magufuli died of COVID-19.

Lissu, who is exiled in Belgium fearing for his life amid death threats after refusing to accept the election results, was among the first to note Magufuli’s absence from public view before his death.

Magufuli had been missing from public view since Feb. 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 he was ill claiming he was busy and the president is not duty-bound to make public appearances

Lissu accuses Magufuli’s regime of being behind a 2017 assassination attempt in which he was shot 16 times.

“President Magufuli defied the world, defied science, defied common sense in his approach to COVID-19 and it finally brought him down,” said Lissu told the Associated Press last week.

Magufuli had claimed last year prayers had eradicated COVID-19 from Tanzania and warned Tanzanians against the use of facemasks and vaccines.

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