Samia Suluhu Hassan Blazes as the First Female President of Tanzania

  • Samia Suluhu Hassan became the first Tanzanian female president.
  • She was sworn in after the sudden death of President John Magufuli.
  • Her presidency is not only historical but could also mark an important step in Tanzania’s path towards more liberal policy.
 Samia Suluhu Hassan
Gospel Kitaa Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why is Samia Suluhu Hassan’s heat level blazing? 

Answer: Samia Suluhu has become Tanzania’s first female president, making history by changing traditional roles of women within the country and continent.

The former Tanzanian vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was sworn in on March 17, becoming the country’s first female president two days after the death of President John Magufuli. Known to be a soft-spoken consensus-builder, Suluhu is also set to be the country’s first president born in Zanzibar, the archipelago that forms part of the Republic of Tanzania. She is set to become the national leader of the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM’s), a post that was left vacant following the death of her predecessor. She has been congratulated by many leaders in the international arena, demonstrating a general endorsement for her presidency. 

Despite her heated success, a critical month lies ahead for President Suluhu, including the signing of key agreements to launch the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, one of Magufuli’s infrastructure legacies. She will also have to address key regional issues including the strained diplomatic and trade ties with other East African Community (EAC) member states. For instance, Tanzania has recently faced allegations of human rights violations of Burundian refugees, which has forced many Burundians back to their mainland. 

Another one of the most important conflicts that the new president will face is the Kenya-Tanzania trade row, which was caused by the inability of both countries to agree on Covid-19 protocols following the cross-border movement of people and goods. Tanzania’s private sector is confident that the new president will partner with them to improve relations with the EAC and the Southern African development community in order to improve exports. This is imperative for Tanzania given their dangerous trade deficit

In 2019, Tanzania exported $4.28B worth of goods and disproportionately imported $11.2B worth of goods. They predominantly export gold and import refined petroleum. Prominent businessmen also appear to have great faith in President Suluhu’s leadership, and many players in the private sector will be looking towards her calmer and more passive nature after their run-ins with nationalist and leftist Magufuli.

Indeed, Suluhu’s leadership is expected to greatly differ from her predecessor’s. Former President John Magufuli was known to be a brash populist who earned the nickname “Bulldozer”, for muscling through policies and who drew criticism for his absolute intolerance of dissent. There were allegations of extensive harassment of opposition politicians, and some were arrested on fake charges or were even threatened with potential murder.

Furthermore, throughout the election period, Magufuli’s government limited the space where opposition and civil societies were allowed to gather. The deceased president made it almost impossible to organize rallies and continuously arrested critics. This came alongside all of the clamping down on the internet and social media. 

Regardless of her predecessor’s challenging legacy, Suluhu is not new, however, to leadership. She has been in a top position for more than five years. The people of Tanzania are also in support of “their mother who has already taken the country’s leadership” and believe that she has the ability to “lead the country in a good direction.” Suluhu will have to navigate through the interests of her people who are yearning for a raise in income and are looking for more investment to be brought to the country in the hopes for more jobs. 

She will also be tasked with healing the country from the polarization that occurred under Magufuli’s leadership. Opposition to Magufuli’s presidency frequently pointed out the lack of freedoms, democratic space, and rights during his presidency, This attracted many mobilized urban voters who fought for more freedoms and other improvements for Tanzania. Three years after Magufuli was elected in 2016, his popularity had reduced by 41% according to pollsters in the region.

Magufuli had two competing approaches against political opposition; where populism did not work, he used repression to silence his critics. For instance, Freeman Mbowe- chairman of Chadema, the second largest political party in Tanzania-, along with 300 workers and activists from Chadema and the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo) were detained or “abducted” on deceptive grounds in 2020 after claims of widespread electoral fraud. 

Overall, given the disastrous legacy left by her predecessor, President Suhulu will have to work extremely hard to maintain her blazing political momentum. 

Who is changing Samia Suluhu Hassan’s temperature? 

Answer: Former President Magufuli and his tough and divisive policies, which contrast with Samia Suluhu Hassan’s expected leadership.

Suluhu made history this month when she was sworn in at a ceremony in the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. She is set to serve for 4 years, finishing the second five-year term left by Magufuli. As Africa’s only woman head of government (Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde only holds a ceremonial role as head of state), she has a lot to live up to and to prove.

Originally, Magufuli wanted the defense minister and son of former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi to be his running mate. Hassan would have been the bridge between Magufuli’s loyalists and other political parties in the region for his influence and experience in politics. However, Magufuli was persuaded by the party elders to pick a woman instead. This could mean that Tanzania is finally moving towards more liberal policies. 

Her party was crucial for her success, as well as for her nomination to the presidency. Their endless support for her experience in the political arena in Tanzania has helped her make a name for herself. The party leaders supported her contrast with Magufuli, who was not afraid to say how he felt, while Suluhu seems calmer and more collected. She has a different approach from the “Bulldozer’s” no-nonsense attitude, and previous rumors about her possible resignation from Magufuli’s team in 2016, made people in Tanzania believe that she would drive change and break away from the traditional way of things.

However, due to that same support support given by her party, it is also expected that she will face early pressure from political powers that will dominate critical aspects of the government, ultimately steering her decisions and agenda. Her calm and collected nature will provide the party with more influence over her decisions, which would be a contrast to her predecessor who was known for taking decisions into his own hands, rather than relying on other members of the party.

Her party, which is predominantly socially democratic, continues to attempt to modernize the country through increased productivity, employment, new technology, expanding local and international markets for Tanzanian products, and a strengthened private sector. Tanzanians hope that these policies, which were mostly neglected by Magufuli, will be upheld by the new president who has experience in the national economy and its social services, infrastructure, and security. 

President John Magufuli also left a tough job for Suluhu in relation to the country’s eccentric health policies. There are no available and reliable COVID-19 statistics for the country, and their Health Minister, Dorothy Gwajima, is known for advocating green smoothies as COVID-19 protection and claiming that there was no need for vaccines. According to the government, Magufuli died from heart complications.

Nonetheless, he had not been seen in public for over two weeks, raising suspicions around his death. In one of his last public appearances, he said that he was proud of his country, which had completed a massive road project “only completed on time because no-one used corona as an excuse to delay it.” 

The former president was one of Africa’s most prominent coronavirus skeptics and called for prayers and herbal-infused steam to counter the virus, rather than the scientific approaches that have been seen worldwide. Opposition politicians in the country claim that the health crisis is out of control. Although President Suluhu has not expressed how she intends to attack the pandemic, there are hopes that she will be more proactive than her predecessor.

What is driving Samia Suluhu Hassan?

Answer: Her ample experience in public office and the exceptionalism of her gender, which leave her a lot to prove.

Born on the island of Zanzibar, which -given its 2 million population compared to that of the mainland’s 56 million- remains a political outlier, Suluhu climbed the ranks in government. In the 1990s, she worked as a development officer in the Zanzibar government. Afterwards, she was employed as project manager for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and was later made the director of an umbrella body that governed NGOs in Zanzibar.

She quickly moved up the public office when she was nominated by her party for a special seat in Zanzibar’s house of representatives, later serving as their local government minister. Before Magufuli nominated her as his running mate, she was elected to the National Assembly in Tanzania and then was appointed as Minister of State for Union Affairs. One of her biggest achievements occurred in 2014, when she served as the vice-chairperson for the Constitutional Assembly which was tasked with drafting Tanzania’s new constitution.

Suluhu made a name for herself in the political landscape of Tanzania. She worked in everything from international organizations to youth employment, women and children, and for tourism and trade investment. She has been described as much more of a diplomatic figure and has been known among her colleagues for following the correct procedures and calmly managing conflicts. Additionally, her impressive background in politics made her a perfect candidate for the presidency, especially in a country like Tanzania, where only a few are benefited from recent growth in the national economy. Tanzania suffers greatly from inequality and is ranked 2nd worse than other countries in the EAC on the Global Hunger Index. 

Taking over from her predecessor is going to prove to be challenging for Suluhu. Many are hoping that she will drive change and provide for a different leadership style from Magufuli. Additionally, her presidency also goes against the stereotype that women cannot hold top leadership positions, especially in more conservative countries like Tanzania. As Vice President, the people of Tanzania always addressed her as “Mama Samia”, relating to her humble and gentle approach, a stark contrast to her running mate.

Although some critics have questioned her leadership capabilities because of this, during her speech on March 22 she exposed her intentions to use her gender as a source of strength. “For those who are skeptical on whether this woman will be able to be the president of Tanzania, I want to assure you that I’m standing here as the president. I repeat, I’m standing here as the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, and I am a woman,” she stressed. Furthermore, not only is Suluhu Hassan a woman but she is also a fervent Muslim who wears a hijab in a Catholic Christian majority country. 

Ultimately, the new Tanzanian president wants to prove that her vast experience and her own personal background are nothing but advantages to lead her country.   

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Samia Suluhu Hassan could change the status quo in Tanzania, which could provide for a ripple effect into the rest of Africa. 

The nomination of a female candidate to the presidency on the African continent, especially in traditional countries such as Tanzania, is historical. This could have important implications for the rest of the African continent. If Suluhu Hassan lives up to the expectations of the private sector and is able to improve the economic situation in Tanzania, she will surprise and silence her critics and simultaneously gain more support from the Tanzanians. It will serve as another outstanding example of how women can hold positions in power.

Recent trends have shown -as is the example in New Zealand with Jacinda Arden- how female leaders have done significantly better than their male counterparts at facing the COVID-19 crisis. Erna Solberg, Sanna Marin, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and Mette Frederiksen, the female prime ministers of Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark respectively, have beat the odds with much lower rates of COVID-19 infections than male-led neighboring nations. 

Successful leadership could also attract foreign investment from the west, as many leaders have come out to applaud her success. Tanzania is more of an importer than it is an exporter, and bringing foreign investment is an important step for growing the economy and shrinking inequality. The country heavily relies on foreign importers of Tanzanian goods, but Suhulu seems to want to push forward more trade agreements with their African counterparts.

According to Global Investment trends, trade with Sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 11% in recent years, hindering the benefits of African trade and regional cooperation that Tanzania could benefit from. Tanzania could become a bigger power in East Africa with an increase in exports. Additionally, Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the second-largest opposition party, believes that Suluhu will bring back the World Health Organization (WHO) to help Tanzania fight the pandemic. With her calm and diplomatic nature, the president could prove to be an asset to the nation by also rebuilding faith in international organizations. 

Countries like the US, Britain, and China, as well as the European Union, will keep a close eye on President Suluhu’s approach to international diplomacy following the previously fractious dealings under Magufuli’s administration. China, one of the nation’s biggest allies and donors, had also fallen out with Magufuli over unacceptably tough conditions attached to infrastructure development loan offers. Overall, the new Tanzanian president seems to have mountain-loads of work to catch up with, but also seems ready to blaze through it successfully.