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Samia Suluhu Hassan: The accidental president

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Samia Suluhu Hassan: The accidental president

The political path of Tanzania’s new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan has been marked by a series of surprises, none greater than her elevation to the top job as a result of the sudden death of her predecessor John Magufuli. But she is already showing signs of an independent mindset and a determination to change the course of the country’s direction in some areas. Profile by Erick Kabendera.

Tanzania’s new President, Samia Suluhu Hassan’s political ascendancy is not without twists and turns; she is ruffling feathers among Tanzania’s political elite, especially after the sudden exit of strongman John Magufuli. 

Although a stalwart Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) cadre for many years, her gender and origins on Zanzibar seem to have created doubts among some of her political colleagues and rivals within the ruling party, as well as in the opposition ranks, over how far she can stretch her influence.  

Nevertheless, her political star has shone brightly, not only following the death of President Magufuli, but it had started its accent in earnest when she was surprisingly plucked, as a nondescript delegate at the CCM Congress in 2015, to be Magufuli’s Presidential running mate.    

Prior to her nomination, she had held ministerial portfolios in the Zanzibar government and later, in 2010, had been appointed Minister of Union Affairs in the national government by President Jakaya Kikwete, Magufuli’s predecessor.

She stepped down as the Minister for Union Affairs to pave the way for fresh elections. She attended the CCM Congress as an ordinary member of the national executive committee to elect its torch-bearers for the forthcoming 2015 general elections.

She says she was preoccupied with how to defend her Makunduchi parliamentary seat at this time and not even in her wildest dreams did she envisage that she would be standing on the Presidential electoral ticket.

The CCM’s Central Committee, the party’s top decision-making organ with sweeping mandates, including overseeing the government on behalf of the ruling party, met behind closed doors to make the ultimate decision – who would be Magufuli’s running mate.

Samia recalls having sat with other ordinary members from Zanzibar as they patiently waited for the announcement of the Central Committee, which was led by the outgoing President, Jakaya Kikwete. It was Kikwete who walked out of the meeting first, with his usual broad and infectious smile, to declare that Magufuli had accepted Samia as his running mate.  

Two other women, the former UN Deputy Secretary General, Asha-Rose Migiro, and the AU ambassador to the US, Amina Salum, had made it to the top-three list of Presidential contenders for the first time since Tanzania’s independence in 1960, raising hopes within the hierarchy that they would either produce the first female Presidential candidate or the first female running mate. 

“I didn’t expect to be nominated as a running mate. I rose up and protested the decision as soon as President Kikwete uttered the words – I wasn’t prepared for it,” she revealed at a young women’s conference in June 2020. 

Indeed, Samia’s rise to the top in her political career has been dominated by surprises – from becoming a Minister in the Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar after she first joined the House of Representatives as a special seat MP, to becoming a Presidential candidate’s running mate, as an unexpected pick, to becoming the first female President of Tanzania, following the sudden death of President Magufuli. 

Samia Hassan Suluhu alongside the late President John Magufuli at the State House in Dar es Salaam in July 2019. (Photo by Ericky BONIPHACE / AFP)

Early political career

Before she entered politics in 2000, Samia had observed Zanzibar’s House of Representatives with keen interest for years. Although the intense debate between the opposition and the ruling CCM party in Zanzibar excited her, she was disappointed by government ministers’ shallow reactions to the issues raised by the opposition. 

Cabinet ministers would give responses which did not reflect the reality on the ground, where she had worked for many years as a civil society official. That vacuum, together with her desire to hold the irresponsible ministers to account, inspired her to seek an elective post.

After deciding to run for public office, she was elected as a special seat member for the ruling party in the island’s House of Representatives. To her surprise she was immediately appointed as Minister for Youth, Employment, Women and Children’s Development by then Zanzibar President Amini Karume, a position she held for five years. 

Following the 2005 general election, in which she was re-elected as a special seat MP, President Karume retained her in Cabinet, appointing her to the Tourism, Trade and Investment role.

Samia has been honest enough to admit that she didn’t study a lot in her early school years, and had performed poorly during her lower secondary school education.

“I came from a normal family with a stay-home mother who dedicated her time to teaching us,” she recalls. But because the prevailing system at the time was that the government would allocate work to most students who finished secondary education, she would, at only 16 years of age, be posted to work as a clerk at the community development office in Zanzibar. 

“I recall my employer complained about my age and was worried of being accused of exploiting child labour. I was therefore asked to return home and had to wait for one more year to continue with the work. I was so hard-working that the bosses would come to me if they wanted something done. I was so efficient that some of my colleagues were unhappy. I did the job for three years but realised it wasn’t suited to me. I decided to pursue a school certificate in statistics and another one in management,” she says. 

Soon after, she moved to the Tanzania mainland where she enrolled for an Advanced Diploma in Public Administration at what was then Mzumbe University’s Institute for Development Management (IDM). She thereafter returned to Zanzibar and worked as a planning officer for two years before quitting to work for the UN World Food Programme project. 

“I worked at WFP for nine years before making a comeback to public service, but did not last long given the lethargy there and decided to join the civil society, starting an NGO which struggled to raise funds for projects. As a leader, I worked with many people, sometimes travelling by bus as far as South Africa to attend conferences,” she recalls.

Major political steps

By 2010, Samia says she had ‘outgrown’ the special seat roles, having served a 10-year stint, and decided to run for a competitive Union parliamentary seat in the 2010 general election, standing for the Makunduchi eonstituency in Zanzibar. 

“It was during this election campaign that I discovered how hard it was to be a woman running for a competitive political office,” she recalls. As opposed to her previous appointments under the Affirmative Action scheme, she found herself facing a rough terrain dominated by men for years.

Eventually, despite a gruelling race in which she endured both physical and psychological torment, she clinched the seat after seeing off her male competitors. She says her secret was to run a clean issue-based campaign and focus less on individuals. This was the election that ushered her into Tanzania’s Union parliament.

Well-received in the region

Samia’s ascendancy to the Presidency has been generally well received in Tanzania and across the East African region. For Tanzanians, it was a break from the five years of Magufuli’s iron-fist rule, during which freedoms shrank, businesses barely survived and there were widespread human rights abuses, particularly targeting political rivals of the President, as well as critics of his administration. 

Despite her early charm offensive, the new President will need much more than luck to win over individuals or groups that suffered the effects of the Magufuli leadership, where, they are quick to point out, Samia was his deputy.

One such sceptic is the main opposition Presidential candidate for the 2020 elections, Tundu Lissu, of the Chadema party. “During her inaugural Parliament address, on 22 April, she did not clearly indicate that hers would be a break from some of the ills of the Magufuli reign.

“She has also suggested that things like the clamour for a new constitution are not top of her agenda, as was the case under Magufuli. She also mentioned in passing that she would seek dialogue with opposition parties,” Lissu said during the early days of Samia’s leadership of the country. 

While not a ringing endorsement, prominent lawyer, Fatma Karume, one of the victims of frequent state-sponsored harassment under Magufuli, says Samia would never be ‘another Magufuli’. She points out that her reconciliatory tone and soft-spoken nature has reassured her of an improved and different engagement with the public.

“She comes from a very small island, where if you treat people badly, you are going to meet them at funerals. It’s a completely different social upbringing,” Karume said in a recent radio interview. 

Other analysts feel that the President will, at some stage, probably after her first term ends, be likely to use the new constitution review process for her campaign agenda over re-election in 2025. Samia is likely to seek a second term, as per the ruling party’s tradition of allowing the incumbent to run for uninterrupted two terms. 

But it is foreign policy where Samia has so far shown the most visible stark difference with her predecessor. Over the span of a few days, she has held meetings with foreign diplomats, heads of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, and paid a symbolic state visit to neighbouring Kenya, whose relations with Tanzania had taken a nosedive under Magufuli. The two countries are the region’s largest economies.

Analysts view this engagements as Samia’s way of saying she will chart a different foreign policy approach – unlike in the past, when such moves would be jeered as ‘dancing to imperialist tunes’.  

The President has signalled her intent to woo foreign investors and create a conducive environment for them and local businesses to trade unhindered. Changing her administration’s perception of foreign investors and aggressively pushing to end stifling red tape and other government bureaucracy, is also one of Samia’s priorities and an early sign of breaking with the past. 

The question remains: will she be able to engender the passionate support among the masses that Magufuli achieved? 

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