New Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who took office after the death of John Pombe Magufuli in March, is the East African nation’s sixth president since it became independent in 1962, and currently the only woman running a country in Africa. Affectionately called Mama Samia, she may bring a calmer style to the office – but her first task will be trying to stem the COVID-19 epidemic. Rob Ahearne, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of East London, who has been doing research in Tanzania for more than a decade, discusses the political context and Hassan’s immediate challenges.
Tanzania’s new President Samia Suluhu Hassan is the nation’s first woman leader and the first from the island of Zanzibar, which united with what was then called Tanganyika in 1964. A member of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party that has held power since then, she will have to deal with an unchecked COVID-19 epidemic that is hobbling the nation’s economy.
Q: What political environment has the new president stepped into?
A: Magufuli’s anti-corruption agenda, emphasis on hard work, fractious relations with multinational mining giants and significant investments in major public works, won praise from some quarters. But it went hand in hand with the severe narrowing of political space (both in public and online) and an increasing authoritarianism. Deep political divisions have been exacerbated by a heavily disputed, possibly fraudulent, election late last year. Magufuli won with a scarcely believable vote share of 84%.
It is this political turmoil and sharp division that Samia Sululu Hassan, affectionally known as Mama Samia, inherits as leader for the next four-and-a-half years.
As vice president for more than five years she has always been a loyal supporter of the government agenda, though in 2016 she didn’t deny rumored tensions in their relationship.
Nevertheless, she often acted as Magufuli’s main overseas representative during her tenure as vice president. Thus she was cast in a more consensus-driven and diplomatic role that may be replicated as president. Despite arguments that she was principally selected because of the need for a woman to serve as vice president after Magufuli defeated two women to the presidential nomination, she managed to carve out a significant role and level of responsibility.
Two of the leading opposition figures, Tundu Lissu (currently exiled in Belgium owing to safety fears) and Zitto Kabwe, have expressed hope that the government will change course under Hassan’s leadership. She is noted as calmer, and less outspoken than her predecessor, so some hope that her government will dampen the populist rhetoric, opposition crackdowns, and increasing authoritarianism. This may prove difficult in the short term, as she will need to build a political base within the ruling party before any major policy shifts.
Q: What do you see as the key social and economic challenges she faces?
A: Tanzania’s economic growth over the past two decades has averaged around an impressive 7%. But this fell more dramatically from 5.8% in 2019 to 2% in 2020. There have been job losses in the formal sector, while hundreds of thousands of people are likely to have been pushed below the national poverty line.
Magufuli’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been accurately described as “distressing” and “baffling.”
One decision was not to impose severe lockdown measures to manage the spread of COVID-19. He lauded his economy-first approach by saying: “We have had a number of viral diseases, including AIDS and measles. Our economy must come first. Countries [elsewhere] in Africa will be coming here to buy food in the years to come … they will be suffering because of shutting down their economies.”
Many now acknowledge that COVID-19 has spread far and wide within Tanzania. The real economic impact of the pandemic will likely be felt more deeply in 2021 and 2022 as firms take precautionary measures against the spread of the virus. There are also likely to be steep declines in production, consumption and exports.
Q: What calls for the new president’s immediate attention?
A: A big issue is what she will do about the country’s stance towards COVID-19.
Magufuli declared Tanzania “virus free” in May of 2020 and failed to take it seriously. It took until February this year for government officials to finally encourage mask-wearing. And there has been no attempt yet made to procure vaccines, despite widespread examples of severe respiratory illness.
The denialism of Magufuli and his regime has clearly had a material impact on public health and preparedness for any rollout of vaccinations.
Hassan’s first priority must, therefore, be to procure vaccines and then to address the uphill task of persuading a potentially skeptical public that they are not “guinea pigs,” as Magufuli asserted.
Q: What sets Tanzania apart from its neighbors?
A: Tanzania is often seen as a beacon of peace and stability in East Africa. It is not exposed to the same political tensions and civil unrest that have beset many neighboring countries, for example the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. Building a sense of national unity was central to the project undertaken soon after independence by “father of the nation” Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who famously said: “In Tanzania, it was more than one hundred tribal units which lost their freedom; it was one nation that regained it.”
The attempt to build a unified nation is reflected in the creation of non-ethnic political institutions and civil service. It is seen in the marginalization of chiefly power, and spreading Kiswahili as a unifying non-colonial national language.
It’s true the project may not have been perfect. The 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, which gave rise to the republic unifying mainland Tanzania with the islands, was a bloody affair. Also, the relationship between the semi-autonomous archipelago and the mainland is often fraught, while ethnic tensions simmer from time to time.
Nevertheless, the narrative of a stable united Tanzania retains a certain logic.
Multi-partyism was implemented in 1995, but the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, retained its dominance for at least a decade. The status quo didn’t change until the 2015 elections. John Magufuli – the little-known minister of works at the time – received the lowest vote share (58%) of any Chama Cha Mapinduzi presidential candidate even with the veracity of the ballot questioned. This is a story replicated in the 2020 election and shows the extent of division within the country. Time will tell, but Mama Samia may prove to be the right sort of politician to usher in a new era of bipartisan politics that is less populist, less authoritarian and more collegial in approach.