Samia Suluhu Hassan is the only woman running a country in Africa. Her to-do list is tough
Rob Ahearne/The Print
A major political transition is under way in Tanzania after the laying to rest of former president John Pombe Magufuli. The East African nation’s new leader Samia Suluhu Hassan is the country’s sixth president and currently the only woman running a country on the continent. We asked Rob Ahearne, who has been doing research in Tanzania for more than a decade, to set out the political context and Hassan’s immediate challenges.
What political environment has the new president stepped into?
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 rumoured tensions in their relationship.
What are the key social and economic challenges she faces?
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.
What calls for the new president’s immediate attention?
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 after initially doing so. He then claimed that COVID-19 had returned with Tanzanians travelling abroad in search of vaccines.
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.
What sets Tanzania apart from its neighbours?
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 neighbouring 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 marginalisation of chiefly power, and spreading Kiswahili as a unifying non-colonial national language.