Introducing...Samia Suluhu Hassan
With the sudden death of controversial Tanzanian President John Magufuli (aka the ‘bulldozer’), Samia Suluhu became the East African country’s first woman president in March 2021. She was vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Magufuli’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party that won first the 2016 and then the 2020 elections. According to the constitution she will finish out Magufuli’s term and then be eligible for another five-year term after that.
The change in leadership has come none too soon for those who value Tanzania’s reputation as a reasonably even-handed democracy – the country has never changed governments except through election. The meteoric Magufuli alarmed those both inside and outside the country with a rambunctious populism that featured both Covid denial and a cavalier approach to civil liberties. Rumours linger that the bulldozer crashed due to catching Covid himself.
The soft-spoken 61-year-old Samia Suluhu is a Muslim from the federated island of Zanzibar. While mourning the passing of her predecessor she is also showing definite signs of a change in direction. Without ever formally breaking with Magufuli’s stance on the pandemic, since coming to power she has swapped out his prayer-will-get-us-through for a scientific approach based on international best practice. She also overturned the rescinding of licences for all independent media houses by the Tanzanian Ministry of Information. Other shifts may be in the works. She ordered the release or reduction in sentences of some 5,000 prisoners in Tanzanian jails. She has promised to defend ‘basic freedoms’ and has reached out to the opposition to try to reach an agreement on how to conduct the country’s politics in a peaceful, civil fashion.
While Samia Suluhu has roots in planning and community development, when she entered politics it was very much as a creature of the ruling CCM Party, which enjoys a certain popularity since moving the country out of poverty to become a lower middle-income economy. The Tanzanian economy’s growth rate has dropped from pre-pandemic levels of nearly 7 per cent but is still at 4.7 per cent. Samia Suluhu’s political career really took off when she was elected as the vice-chair of the constituent assembly tasked with the drafting of the country’s new constitution in 2014. Her departure in style from the bulldozer’s heavy hand may be challenged by whatever factions in the CCM support more authoritarian measures – this will likely be the first real test of Samia Suluhu’s political skills and resolve. Her recent nomination as CCM chairperson cannot but be seen as a sign that her political star remains in the ascendency. At a May Day rally she celebrated the role of Tanzanian workers in building the economy and promised badly needed wage increases once the post-pandemic malaise was in the rearview mirror.
The CCM has its roots back in the days of Julius Nyerere and the independence struggles of the Tanganyika African National Union. Nyerere is considered a founding figure of African socialism and a devout champion of fairness and honesty in the continent’s politics – sadly virtues not widely adhered to by the African political class since those heady days. But at the helm of one of Africa’s oldest political formations, Samia Suluhu should have a legacy of democracy and justice to sustain her.