The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tanzania’s first female president has arrived — but with some serious red flags

Samia Suluhu Hassan takes oath of office on March 19 to become the president of Tanzania. (Reuters)

Maria Sarungi Tsehai is a media professional and activist in Tanzania.

Last week, after the sudden death of Tanzanian president John Magufuli, the nation swore in Samia Suluhu Hassan, its first female president.

The moment is significant for Tanzania, and not just because Hassan is a woman. Hassan is from Zanzibar — the semi-autonomous archipelago that united with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania, making her only the second Zanzibari president of the United Republic. She is a devout Muslim, and wears a hijab.

Out of her many politically significant identities, Hassan has stood boldly in her womanhood. During her swearing-in ceremony before a packed stadium, she asserted, “I know there are people who have doubt and ask, ‘Can this woman be the President of the United Republic of Tanzania?’ Well, I would like to tell them that the one standing here is the president. I repeat, the one standing here is the president of the United Republic of Tanzania who is biologically a woman.”

For many, Hassan — or Mama Samia, as she is fondly called — is a figure of comfort and strength. Female leaders around the world have sent congratulatory messages to her. However, one cannot just assume that being a woman will mean that her leadership will automatically be better.

It must be said that Hassan’s party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) which has ruled Tanzania since independence, has trafficked in sexism. Her predecessor, Magufuli, spewed misogynistic rhetoric during his time in office. In 2017, he declared that pregnant schoolgirls should be permanently expelled from school, vowing during his presidency that not a single pregnant schoolgirl should go back to school. This resulted in thousands of expulsions each year from the formal education system. In 2018, when farmers in Tanzania opposed the government’s measure not to pay out to them part of the cashew-nut export levy, Magufuli threatened to send in security forces. Magufuli repeatedly opposed family planning efforts and even went as far as to suggest that women should set their ovaries free, calling those who support family planning “lazy”. Magufuli has trafficked in colorism, pointing out last year during the campaign that voters should vote for a female candidate because she was fair-skinned and that he listened more to fair-skinned women than dark-skinned women.

Any female politician who survives such misogyny deserves respect. But Hassan has already given some troubling signs about how she intends to govern. After her inauguration she said that she will “continue where Magufuli left off.” Hassan’s statement deeply worried many of us who have witnessed five years of enforced disappearance, arbitrary imprisonment of critics, journalists and members of the opposition, the shrinking of the civic space, and the enactment of repressive laws under Magufuli.

Hassan’s response to covid-19, which has ravaged the country, also deserves scrutiny after the reckless leadership of Magufuli regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Tanzania stopped reporting covid-19 data in May 2020 after Magufuli declared Tanzania covid-free — after three days of national prayer. Magufuli also rejected vaccines, claiming that vaccines could be White men’s attempt to use Tanzanians as guinea pigs. He espoused herbal remedies and steam inhalations as treatments and created doubt about imported masks. On top of this, Tanzania has opted out of the international Covax initiative to ensure vaccine availability to Tanzanians. In the past three months, Tanzania has seen a surge in the number of covid cases and deaths.

But like Magufuli, Hassan has disregarded the most basic of covid precautions. She continues to appear in public and mingle without wearing a mask. She has remained silent on the recklessness of mass gatherings for ceremonies in urban centers.

Any small action by Hassan toward addressing covid-19 would go a long way in saving lives. She could start by mandating masks, restricting public gatherings and mobilizing the health ministry to start working on a vaccination implementation plan.

Tanzanians need to regain the civic and political freedoms that Magufuli eroded. In the short term, Hassan can start with allowing the political party gatherings that Magufuli banned in 2016. She can also put a stop to the senseless and arbitrary police detention of people for expressing their opinion and feelings.

In the long term, Hassan must rescind the oppressive laws that have restricted the press, social media, civil society and businesses. She can move to order a judicial review of some political and other economic crimes related cases. Perhaps most importantly, she can restart the constitutional reforms that were derailed under President Jakaya Kikwete in 2013 which sought to guarantee more freedoms, solidify the separation of powers, restrict the powers of the presidency and create a clearer autonomy for Zanzibar.

So will Hassan’s presidency be different from the previous administration that has caused divisiveness and repression? We must wait and see. For my part, I remain cautiously hopeful. In my personal interactions with Hassan, she has come across as a humble negotiator who is willing to seek consensus and reconciliation. Tanzania can only hope that Hassan will aspire to greatness, and that she will use this historic presidency to put the country back on the correct path.

Read more:

Rael Ombour and Max Bearak: In death, as in life, Tanzania’s Magufuli polarized his country