Can Samia Suluhu Hassan make a clean break from Magufuli?

Tanzania’s new president seems to be steering the country back towards democracy, but consolidating power won’t be easy.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan is set to define her political trajectory as Tanzania’s new leader after the death of her predecessor John Magufuli. She inherits a legacy fraught with controversy, from the stifling of civil liberties to COVID-19 denial.

She also takes over a country that managed to transition from poverty to a lower-middle-income economy that resonated with many Tanzanians. This achievement resulted in the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) ruling party’s electoral victory in 2020.

With a five-year term ahead of her, she has a golden opportunity to build on the economic growth trajectory without separating economic progress and civil liberties. Her success will lie in her ability to define a vision and strategy that the country and party will buy into and consolidate power in government, the security sector and the CCM party.

Samia Suluhu is a senior cadre of the CCM. However, until Magufuli’s death, she didn’t hold any of the top three leadership positions in the CCM, as is the practice in other Southern African Development Community countries. The norm in the region and most of Africa is that the president is the ruling party leader, and the vice-president deputises as party president. This facilitates the consolidation of power in both party and government.

Samia Suluhu didn’t hold any of the top three leadership positions in the CCM ruling party

As the new president, Samia Suluhu assumes the position of CCM chairperson, which brings the invidious task of navigating internal party politics. With high levels of conflation between the ruling party and the state, this power consolidation will be critical for Samia Suluhu to realise her new vision without internal rifts. Such rifts could curtail her progress and future political ambitions.

In her inauguration speech on 19 March, the new president firmly stated that she was in charge. Then she assured the nation that she would continue implementing Magufuli’s vision. How will she do this while simultaneously charting her own course?

In the short to medium term, the defining areas for Samia Suluhu will be public health, human rights, civil liberties, foreign policy and economic policies. In the long term, it will boil down to bread-and-butter issues for Tanzanians – developmental progress. Though her vision and strategy aren’t yet clear, she has made key pronouncements about COVID-19 and civil liberties, with opposite positions to Magufuli’s.

Within weeks of taking office, Samia Suluhu has started distancing herself from some of Magufuli’s decisions on private sector engagement, COVID-19 and human rights. In a significant policy shift she said Tanzania couldn’t afford to ignore the global pandemic. She has opted for a more scientifically informed approach by instituting a panel of public health and medical experts to advise the government on the issue.

Strict COVID-19 measures would lead to a slowdown in the economy, and therefore a political backlash

This is a marked and welcome departure from her predecessor. While the rest of the world was implementing stringent measures, including nationwide lockdowns, masking up and social distancing, Magufuli declared that Tanzania had defeated COVID-19 through prayer. Under the 2019 Statistics Act, no independent body outside government could announce any figures on the pandemic.

Can Samia Suluhu reset the clock on COVID-19 in Tanzania? Doing so would require balancing public health and financial considerations in a celebrated growing economy. It would affect millions of poor Tanzanians. Stringent measures such as a hard lockdown would directly affect the CCM support base, for example informal traders. This would lead to a slowdown in the economy, and therefore a political backlash.

In another move that departs from the Magufuli administration, Samia Suluhu ordered the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports to rescind its decision to ban and shut down independent media houses. She said, ‘I am told that you revoked licences.’ Her words inferred that she wasn’t aware of such a drastic decision, while at the same time, she didn’t directly implicate the late president.

One would assume that Magufuli’s positions were not his own, but represented those of the dominant faction in the CCM. Samia Suluhu’s actions can be interpreted as an attempt to distance herself from Magufuli’s ‘arbitrary’ decisions and present herself in a positive pro-democracy light. Magufuli had essentially declared war on press freedom, among other political liberties. Through her new directives, Samia Suluhu is setting Tanzania back on the path of democracy.

Will Samia Suluhu swing the pendulum too far, too soon and upset her CCM opponents?

However, she faces bumpy political terrain internally, within the CCM and in government, and externally, as opposition leaders and civil society organisations try to influence her policy direction. The opposition has praised her recent moves – but this is also strategic. After five years of antagonistic relations with the government, they want a smooth road to democracy. Civil society is joining the plea for her to undo years of restrictions and clampdowns.

Will Samia Suluhu swing the pendulum too far and too soon from Magufuli’s policies and upset her CCM opponents? Or will she play the long game, building on the good aspects of Magufuli’s legacy with the bigger picture in mind? The next few months will be telling.

Ringisai Chikohomero, Researcher, ISS Pretoria

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