She may have been Tanzania’s ‘accidental president’, but Samia Suluhu Hassan has used her first year in office to cement her power.
The way in which she took over the position put her on the back foot.
She found herself stepping up to the plate after the sudden death of John Pombe Magufuli, Tanzania’s fifth president who served from 2015 until 2021. A year earlier, Magufuli had led the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), to power again in a bitterly contested general election. The poll was marred by violence and massive rigging.
Magufuli was nevertheless sworn in as president, and Hassan as vice president. She automatically assumed the presidency after he died on 17 March 2021.
The two immediate challenges she faced were that, firstly, she was a beneficiary of an election that was not considered free or fair.
Secondly, most members of parliament felt their election victories were a result of Magufuli’s political approach. Ninety-nine percent of Tanzania’s parliament is held by the ruling party.
This parliamentary loyalty has, arguably, been a recurring source of challenges in Hassan’s first year of administration.
As a result, she has made several changes to showcase her presidential power, and her ability to run the country and manage its politics as she prepares to run for a second term in 2025.
I analyse four areas where Hassan’s impact has been felt in the first year of her presidency. These are: the about-turn on COVID-19 protocols, her expansion of the civic space, a focus on the informal sector and her efforts to build her own team.
Turning the ship
COVID-19: One of the most radical changes seen during Hassan’s presidency is in Tanzania’s stance on the pandemic. The former administration had denied the existence of COVID-19. Hassan has acknowledged the science and prevention protocols to manage the disease, and encouraged citizens to get vaccinated.
Wearing a mask is now the norm in government meetings and, as per international requirements, Tanzania is providing COVID-19 data on a regular basis.
Expanded civic space: Hassan has reversed some of the restrictions imposed under Magufuli. For example, she lifted the ban against some newspapers and made it easier for bloggers to operate without licences.
She has also changed the tone of government rhetoric. For example, to create a conducive business environment, she has warned tax authorities not to frustrate or threaten businesses, but rather facilitate their operations.
Her administration has also taken legal action against a former district commissioner – Lengai Ole Sabaya. He openly tortured the opposition in the name of defending Magufuli’s administration. In this way, she distanced herself from the previous regime’s approach of using local authority leaders to silence citizens critical of the government.
The other front on which she’s taken a different approach is in relation to public service and the opposition. In contrast to the previous administration, she has treated those in public service with sensitivity and respect.
She also met opposition leader Freeman Mbowe at Tanzania’s State House immediately after he was released from jail. Mbowe was arrested in July 2021 while organising a conference on constitutional reforms. He was in jail for more than 200 days.
However, the authoritarian streak in the ruling party remains. This is evident from the fact that some restrictions remain, including on public rallies.
It remains to be seen if Hassan can bring about radical democratic change in Tanzania if it threatens the dominance of the ruling party. Magufuli’s approach weakened the party’s ability to legitimately win elections. It made the party dependent on the police force and state machinery to silence dissent.
As the party’s chair, Hassan is trying to reverse this.
The informal sector: Hassan has set about trying to address the challenges faced by the country’s informal sector. This includes active participation in Generation Equality to ensure women’s participation in the economy. She has also insisted on fair tax reforms that would help formalise the informal sector.
But her efforts to address informal sector challenges have been hindered by both infrastructure and policy issues. Some of the hurdles include increasingly regular power cuts.
Hassan has also taken steps that have been criticised for harming the informal sector. These include high levies on mobile money transactions, which curtail small business growth.
In addition, her government has used force to remove street hawkers without providing them with alternatives.
Consolidating her team: To manage the politics of her party, Hassan has been building her own team.
She has had two cabinet reshuffles. Requiring the new team to swear into her administration was a subtle way of transferring ministerial loyalty from the former regime to hers.
Hassan has also dealt with dissenting voices from within the ruling party in parliament. She forced the speaker – Job Ndugai – to resign, showing that she can discipline the party’s heavyweights. To further manage criticism from within the party, she appointed outspoken member of parliament Humphrey Polepole an ambassador to Malawi.
She has also hired a former journalist to lead the State House communication directorate. She is building an inner circle of professionals rather than of hardcore party loyalists.
Tanzanians have definitely seen change happen under Hassan. But what remains the same is the ruling party’s unwillingness to create a fair political playing field.
To realise real change, Hassan has to address legal structures, including draconian laws that facilitate discrimination. These include the Cybercrime Act, Media Services Act and the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act.
But doing so might be difficult given the current parliament’s loyalty to the past administration and its approach.
The real test of Hassan’s genuineness in wanting change will be in her allowing constitutional reforms. There is need for an overhaul of the existing constitution given its inability to provide checks and balances. It also gives enormous imperial powers to the president.
Delivering a new constitution that ensures accountability will give Hassan a legacy that endures beyond her presidential tenure.