It’s been nearly three months since the 17 March death of Tanzanian president and Covid-19 denialist John Magufuli and his replacement by former vice president and Tanzania’s first female president Samia Suluhu Hassan. With Hassan constitutionally mandated to lead the country for the rest of Magufuli’s second term (until 2025), she has been under close scrutiny as Tanzania watches to see how she manages the Magufuli legacy and the country’s future. Concerns about Magufuli’s leadership had been mounting for years after initial optimism about his anti-corruption stance and commitment to drive massive infrastructure projects was gradually overshadowed by criticism of anti-democratic repression borne out in crackdowns on the media, civil society and the opposition. In the last year, his insistence that God had kept Tanzania safe from Covid-19 threatened both the nation’s health and economic future, with other countries in the region concerned about the secondary impacts, at a time when relations with once strong neighbours like Kenya and Uganda were already souring.
While many were relieved that Magufuli’s increasingly authoritarian reign was at an end it was unclear whether Hassan would forge her own path after she initially said she would continue where Magufuli left off, with stark differences between the two leaders evidenced in their nicknames ‒ Magufuli’s “Bulldozer” versus Hassan’s “Mama”. Parallel to fears as to whether she would be willing and able to drive Tanzania in a new direction was concern that she would be able to harness the necessary support in the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) to do so. So far, she has proved adept on all these fronts, firmly sidestepping comparisons but clearly distinguishing herself from Magufuli’s bombastic rhetoric with a soft tone – one she herself described in a BBC interview in 2020 saying “I don’t speak in a forceful voice, like others I can speak to you, in a soft tone, but make it clear that you understand what I mean.”
And she seems to be making everyone understand rather well, telling her parliament that the country’s Covid-19’s response would be based on science going forward, and that she would defend democracy and fundamental freedoms, meet with opposition leaders, and strive to attract foreign investors. The same soft power play appears to have worked inside the CCM, where it was well known that she (a Muslim from Zanzibar’s small Unguja South Region constituency) had no substantial political base within a party heavily dominated by Magufuli’s conservative Christian circle aligned largely with his own Sukuma ethnic group. All of this in a highly patriarchal political landscape. Asserting herself astutely she forged an alliance with the predominantly Muslim and liberal factions of former presidents Jakaya Kikwete and Ali Hassan Mwinyi and their support helped her install her preferred candidates and sideline Magufuli loyalists. Her first cabinet reshuffle on 31 March demonstrated this when she named the technocratic finance minister and former World Bank economist Philip Mpango as vice-president. The CCM did not seem to push back, endorsing her unanimously as party chair on 30 April, prompting her sacking of Magufuli loyalist Bashiru Ally as chief secretary and CCM secretary-general. The appointment of the nonpartisan Mphango and Ally’s demotion sounded a clear signal that Hassan is her own woman.
This trend continued outside the party where she is steadily restoring government’s credibility at home and abroad, lifting the ban on independent media houses before her 22 April promise to meet opposition leaders for talks on democracy. Although exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu still wants Hassan to guarantee his safety before he comes home from Belgium.
With tangible progress on democracy still pending, diplomacy and trade relations have already had a significant boost with Hassan reversing years of insular positioning with trips to Uganda and Kenya and visits to Tanzania by the British minister for Africa and Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi. And the meetings have not just been talkshops:
- Tanzania, Uganda, oil multinational Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corp signed off on the US$3.5 billion East African crude oil pipeline that will take oil from Uganda’s Lake Albert fields to Tanzania’s port city Tanga.
- Tanzania and Kenya finalised a memorandum of understanding on a potential $1 billion pipeline moving natural gas from Tanzania to Kenya, and a reciprocal waiver of work visas and business permits.
These deals will help fix years of testy relations between Tanzania and the broader East African Community (EAC) with multiple mutual economic and diplomatic benefits. The move to develop the LNG sector with vigour also bodes well for the market with the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corp confirming that talks with investors (Shell and Equinor) will start in May. This is fuelling hopes that the Hassan induced turn away from economic nationalism could see a final investment decision in the medium term and an associated flurry of investment activity directed at Tanzania.
Reasons for caution subsist. The expert committee she appointed in Covid-19 has yet to produce new policies; Tissu Lundu has yet to return to the country; and the lifted media ban has yet to be tested. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says she should still review or repeal of repressive laws like the Media Services Act, the Cybercrimes Act, and the Electronic and Postal (Online Content) Regulations and issue clear directives against the arrest and prosecution of journalists and opposition politicians. Nonetheless, Hassan’s insistence she not be compared to Magufuli and her success in finding support within the CCM suggest that she may be up to the task and may even provide Tanzania with the ethical leadership it needs to retake its promising position within the EAC and on the Continent.