"A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” said Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan in Dodoma on June 8.
This quote, attributed to former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, has held true for the Tanzanian leader, who is marking her 100 days in office this week after taking over following the death of President John Pombe Magufuli in March.
President Samia, 61, took over a country that was being treated as a pariah due to Covid denialism after the late president announced that the coronavirus had been vanquished in the country in April 2020, and stopped publishing Covid-19 data.
She inherited a dying economy, hard-hit by the vagaries of the coronavirus and a deeply divided nation smarting from a highly contentious result of a general election in which the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) had swept the board, leaving just a vestige of opposition.
Being the first woman to be president in Tanzania and East Africa, the bar is quite high for Mama Samia. But, 100 days on, observers say she has done well. Indeed, the more hot water she seems to be dipped in, the stronger she is becoming. Tanzanians have in the past few weeks been circulating a popular cartoon on social media, which portrays the president as her own “man”.
From the outset, the president was faced with five major problems: reversing the sentiment around Covid-19, saving the economy, repairing political and civil society relations, empowering women and youth and promoting foreign relations. So, she hit the ground running.
Under her, there have been notable changes in foreign policy (from isolationism to multilateralism), in the Covid-19 policy, in tax and investment policies, and regional integration efforts.
On Covid-19, the president mooted a presidential task force to advise the government on how to deal with the pandemic and its impact. The team, over a month ago, handed in its report recommending release of data on infections and deaths to give Tanzanians and the world a clear picture of the impact of the pandemic, vaccination and implementation of preventive measures such as social distancing, wearing of protective gear and observing hygiene.
The president is expected to roll out Covid data any time soon. This has been one of the conditions the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before the release of a $571 million loan to tackle the challenges of the pandemic.
President Samia has started putting into effect the recommendations piecemeal but officials say plans to implement the entire report are in top gear. Last month, she stressed the importance of wearing facemasks.
“I request you to wear masks. This pandemic has no respect for your health,” said President Samia in Dar es Salaam.
The government is seeking to revitalise emergency plans for disaster response, and Dodoma will participate in decision-making and implementation of regional and international resolutions adopted by the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the World Health Organisation.
The government will allow the use of Covid-19 vaccines listed by the WHO and the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Groups and the Tanzania Medicines and Medical Devices Authority will advise and control the vaccination drive. Already, the government has allowed foreign embassies and firms to vaccinate staff.
After Tanzania expressed its interest in joining Covax, the global vaccine-sharing facility, the government last weekend warned of a third wave of Covid-19 and directed that precautions be taken.
Director of Prevention in the Health ministry Leonard Subi quoted monitoring reports carried out by the ministry as well as interaction between Tanzanians and other nations. Deputy Health minister Godwin Mollel said the government has been keeping Covid data all along.
Politics and governance
President Magufuli’s anti-corruption crusade, emphasis on hard work, fractious relations with multinational mining giants and significant investments in major public works, won praise from some quarters. But it also came with a severe narrowing of political space. The resultant deep political divisions were exacerbated by the disputed October 2020 election, in which Magufuli won 84 percent of the votes cast. It is this political crisis that Mama Samia inherited.
Two leading opposition politicians, former presidential candidate Tundu Lissu, who is exiled in Belgium and ACT-Wazalendo chief Zitto Kabwe have expressed hope that the government will change course under Samia’s leadership.
“Tanzania will return to international and regional fold under her presidency. That misguided isolationism that defined Magufuli is untenable. It was costing the country dearly,” said Mr Lissu.
Her calm and calculative mien, in contrast with Magufuli’s abrasive “bulldozer” character, has won her admiration, with hopes high that she will heal the divisions in the country.
When she took over office, she promised to call the opposition to dialogue, heralding a new era of tolerance.
She also went on to take the chair of the CCM, shattering the sentiment in some quarters that the party hardliners would not give her an easy time. But she has moved to build a political base within the ruling party before any major policy shifts.
The president has also made headway in mending fences broken by her predecessor on the human rights front. Her early days in power have seen, among other things, the release of scores of Tanzanians who spent years in detention without trial under Magufuli for non-bailable charges ranging from money-laundering to economic crimes and terrorism.
Prominent lawyer Fatma Karume has had her licence to practise reinstated by a judiciary that initially debarred her for being too critical of the Magufuli regime.
But some of these changes have elicited cautious optimism. The laws Magufuli used to effect these decisions are still in place.
Although power play, rumblings of discontent and other intrigues within the CCM haven’t yet come to light, pundits say they will inevitably do before the next general election in which she is expected to defend her seat.
There is also growing pressure especially from the political opposition for the resumption of a constitutional reform process, which was controversially scrapped before Magufuli took power in 2015 and then ignored during his reign.
Opposition politicians, clerics, civil society actors and other citizens have demanded the resumption of the constitutional review but recently CCM dismissed the call, saying it is not a priority. But political analysts say it is just a matter of time before the party Mama Samia leads changes that stance.
Tanzania’s economic growth over the past two decades has averaged seven percent. But this fell more dramatically to 4.7 percent in 2020 from 6.9 per cent in 2019. There have been job losses in the formal sector, while hundreds of thousands of people are likely to have been pushed below the poverty line. Dr Magufuli’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was described as “distressing” and “baffling”. There have been noted declines in production, consumption and exports.
In May, President Samia unveiled a grand plan for economic transformation in the next five years, emphasising empowerment and job creation.
“We will continue the good work achieved during the previous administrations, change where necessary but with a view to promoting efficiency and productivity, guided by the national, regional and party manifestos,” she said.
“Last year, our nation managed to enter the middle-income category, where the per capita income increased to $1,080 from $1,036. It is a great achievement, but more effort is needed to accelerate the economy,” she said.
The president’s approach of meeting personally with the heads of state and organisations has shown her plan to open up and strengthen Tanzania diplomatic relations and reinforce her political influence across the region and beyond. Starting from the early days of her administration she indicated that she would pursue economic partnerships.
From holding meetings with key players in the global economy to recent visits to Uganda Kenya and Mozambique, she has been repairing ties with the outside world.
On June 23, President Samia was in Maputo on a two-day State visit where she attended a SADC Heads of State and Government Summit to discuss regional integration, cooperation and development. Key issues discussed included the region’s response and support to Mozambique in addressing terrorism, regional food and nutrition, security, gender and development, and progress in the regional response to HIV/Aids and the Covid-19 pandemic.
In her two-day state visit to Kenya in May, she and President Uhuru Kenyatta witnessed the signing of a deal to deliver natural gas from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa by pipeline and resolved to clear trade hurdles to increase cross-border trade by removing non-tariff barriers.
She has met Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni twice; in April in Entebbe for the signing of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline deal and in Dar es Salaam in May to sign the Host Government Agreement for the project.
She says her target is to regain the trust of investors by tackling the hurdles that they face in doing business.
Other meetings in the president’s diplomatic charm offensive involved a recent virtual one with IMF executive director Kristalina Georgieva, which unlocked a $571 million loan. The IMF is said to be already processing funding to cushion Tanzania against the effects of Covid-19.
On April 19, President Samia met with Mara Warwick, the World Bank’s country director to Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, at State House Dodoma and pledged her cooperation with the Bretton Woods institutions.
“The World Bank is supporting Tanzania in improving social services such as education and health, and in improving the infrastructure,” she said.
Ms Warwick said the World Bank had approved loans to the tune of $4.9 billion for supporting various development projects in the country, making Tanzania among the leading recipients of the Bank’s funding.
Culture, youth and gender agenda
Another area where Mama Samia, a mother of four, has conspicuously deviated from the approach of her predecessor is in instigating empowerment initiatives for women and youth, which she has proved with her public appointments. The president appointed the first female Clerk of the National Assembly, Nenelwa Mwihambi, in what she described as a bid to strike a stronger gender balance in one of the main pillars of the state. The Deputy Speaker, Tulia Ackson, is also a woman. She also appointed 13 women among 28 new High Court judges, lifting the gender ratio to 40 female judges out of 86.
An unprecedented number of entertainers and under-30s were incorporated in the latest appointments of district commissioners that she named on June 19. They include popular hip-hop musician Nickson Simon John aka Nikki wa Pili, Bongo movie actor Juma Chikoka and former Miss Tanzania Basila Mwanukuzi. Another model, Jokate Mwegelo, was retained.
“No nation can make progress without contributions from women,” President Samia told a meeting of women in Dodoma.
At a public rally in Mwanza she said she was willing to give youth leadership opportunities “because it is the youth who are now running this nation.”
Just this week, the Samia administration announced that secondary school dropouts in Tanzania will be offered an opportunity to resume studies in alternative colleges, as part of a shift away from a disputed Magufuli policy under which pregnant girls were expelled from school.
“We are offering an alternative path to education to all children who missed their education for any reason, including those girls who got pregnant while in school, through our Folk Development Colleges,” Leonard Akwilapo, a senior official at the Ministry of Education, told Reuters.
What sets Tanzania apart
Tanzania is often seen as a beacon of peace and stability in East Africa. It is not exposed to the political tensions and civil unrest that have beset neighbouring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Burundi, Kenya and Uganda. The attempt to build a unified nation is reflected in the creation of non-ethnic political institutions and civil service. It is seen in the marginalisation of chiefly power, and spreading Kiswahili as a unifying non-colonial national language.
Investors have improved their outlook on Tanzania since Samia directed her administration to fast-track delayed investments. They include a $30 billion liquefied natural gas project involving Equinor ASA, and a $3 billion joint venture with a Chinese company to develop an iron-ore and coal mine.
Her plan to improve the investment climate to attract investment has been music to the ears of investors who had been rattled by the Magufuli administration, which reviewed some laws and regulations. In late May, when he visited Tanzania recently Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote praised Samia’s leadership in trying to transform Tanzania into an investment destination of choice.
“The president wants more investors in the country in order to create more jobs and improve the national economy. We pledge to continue investing massively in Tanzania,” a statement from State House said after the meeting on May 26.
Mr Dangote joined a growing list of prominent personalities in the business, economic and political circles who have expressed confidence in the Tanzanian leader’s administration.
“The political and economic transformation we are witnessing in Tanzania has not been experienced before,” said Peter Mathuki, EAC Secretary General. “Tanzania is a giant that has now woken up. This is now the next superpower in the region.”
By Luke Anami, Bob Karashani, Dorothy Ndalu, Bloomberg