Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu, 61, took office as the country’s first female president on Friday, vowing to follow the path of her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli who was pronounced dead last week, a fortnight after he disappeared from public view.
“I can say without a doubt that we have lost a bold leader who had a vision. He was a patriot who loved his country and the African continent,” President Suluhu said at State House in Dar es Salaam.
“I can assure you that we are strong as a nation and we, your leaders, have an elaborate plan to continue with where our colleague stopped.”
Addressing the nation in her first public speech soon after being sworn in at State House, Dar es Salaam, President Suluhu cut a figure of a politician ready to step into the role.
Dressed in a black skirt suit, red blouse and her signature hijab, also in red, Suluhu matched the ceremonial attire of the military and was in her characteristic calm demeanour.
The ceremony, scheduled for 10am, delayed by a few minutes but when she walked into the room, it proceeded smoothly.
Holding aloft a copy of a maroon Quran, Suluhu took the oath of office under the guidance of Chief Justice Prof Ibrahim Juma and witnessed by the president of Zanzibar Dr Hussein Mwinyi, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, Cabinet ministers, military top brass and other invited top government officials.
After the oath, she read a prepared speech, which once again announced the death of President John Magufuli, eulogising him as a patriot and good teacher to whom she was eternally grateful. She vowed to follow in his good steps for the benefit of Tanzanians.
Even as she read the speech, she admitted that the burden of leadership was big on her shoulders but prayed that the people of Tanzania will always be by her side.
At some point as she fumbled with her speech, she sighed loudly, showing the solemnness of the occasion and its magnitude.
But being a seasoned politician, President Suluhu stoically immersed herself in the moment as the guests hang on to every word she said.
The newly sworn-in president also announced the burial date of her predecessor, scheduled for March 25, in Chato, Geita region. She gave the full programme of where the public would be able to pay their last respects to their departed leader.
At the end of the brief ceremony, she was invited outside the chamber to inspect a guard of honour by the military in her honour as the new Commander- in-Chief.
She received the traditional 21-gun salute and celebratory cheers could be heard from beyond the walls of Ikulu with every blast.
The national anthems of both Tanzania and the East African Community were played to close the short but colourful and very significant ceremony.
President Suluhu then presided over her first Cabinet meeting later on Friday and a photograph handed out by the presidency showed no one wearing a face mask in the closed-door meeting. The official cause of Magufuli’s death has been given as a heart attack. However, opposition leaders in Tanzania say the late Magufuli, who was a vocal Covid-19 sceptic, was taken ill by the coronavirus.
More handout photos later on Friday showed President Suluhu visiting the Magufuli’s widow, Janeth and other family members, again without masks. Earlier photographs, taken before the swearing-in ceremony had shown Suluhu and her protection detail wearing masks, a rarity among Tanzanian officials during the course of the pandemic.
President Suluhu had deputised Magufuli since 2015 when they won the presidency on the Chama cha Mapinduzi ticket. Under Tanzanian law she will govern for the rest of the current term which ends in 2025 and is eligible to run once more for the presidency.
Tanzania’s new leader faces a difficult path ahead as she seeks to assert her authority and leadership style on the country amid calls for more civil liberties and accountable government.
“This is a time to bury our differences and unite as one. This is the time not to look into the future with doubts, but with hope and confidence,” she told the country after the swearing-in. “It is not a time to point fingers but a time to hold each other’s hands and move forward.”
In a sign of how much bridge-building work needs to be done, President Suluhu’s comments immediately drew critical reactions from political opponents and civil society activists.
“What finger-pointing,” Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a filmmaker and civil society personality tweeted, before asking for answers about journalists and other people who have disappeared in the country.
“Restore democracy in parliament — otherwise the rhetoric is already problematic,” Ms Tsehai added.
CCM won last October’s election with 84 per cent of the vote and a super majority in parliament where the opposition won only a handful of seats.
However, the late president was accused of strong-arming political opponents and autocratic tendencies. Tundu Lissu, the main opposition candidate in the last election, who survived an assassination attempt in 2015, has since returned to exile and been joined by more Tanzanian politicians.
It isn’t clear whether the soft-spoken President Suluhu will emulate Magufuli’s gung-ho governance style which included populist road-side edicts and bruising attacks on political opponents or bureaucrats seen as corrupt or ineffective. As one of very few government officials who visited Mr Lissu in hospital after the failed attempt on his life, President Suluhu is well placed to build bridges with the opposition should she choose to do so.
Born on January 27, 1960, President Suluhu is the first person born on the Zanzibar archipelago to lead the unitary state. Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who was president between 1985 and 1995, was born on the Mainland.
She first entered parliament in 2000 after CCM nominated her in the Zanzibar House of Representatives. She served as Minister for Youth and later Tourism in Zanzibar. In 2010, she joined the National Assembly of Tanzania and served in Jakaya Kikwete’s government as Minister in charge of Union Affairs.
Like her predecessor, she stunned the field to win the CCM nomination in 2015. She takes office as a dark horse but with the benefit of five years under Magufuli’s wings.
“I learnt a lot from him,” she said on Friday after taking the oath of office.
President Suluhu faces a busy in-tray. First, she has to oversee the funeral arrangements of her predecessor, which include a church service and public event in Dar es Salaam on Saturday, events in the administrative capital Dodoma thereafter, before Magufuli’s burial on Thursday in his hometown of Chato, in northwestern Tanzania.
The new leader also has to appoint a new vice president, in consultation with the ruling CCM party.
“Usually a strong leader picks a relatively weaker person to deputise them,” a university don in Dar es Salaam, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, told The EastAfrican. “It will be interesting to see whether a relatively weak president picks a stronger VP.”
Pressure to change
If Covid-19 contributed to her predecessor’s demise, President Suluhu will come under pressure to change the country’s approach to the pandemic.
Under Magufuli, the country defied global guidelines and did not impose a compulsory order to wear masks while in public, social distance, or lock down the economy. In fact, Magufuli had declared Covid-19 defeated in June last year and stopped giving daily data on rate of infections.
Since then several top Tanzanian officials — and many rank-and-file citizens have died of coronavirus-related complications — but the magnitude of the disease remains unclear and the publication of unofficial statistics is a criminal offence under laws written during Magufuli’s first term in office.
DON’T JUDGE TOO FAST
Tanzanians have no doubt that President Suluhu possesses the necessary mental wherewithal to avoid being gender-stereotyped and will crack the whip when necessary. Though little is known about her outside Tanzania, she is a veteran of Tanzanian politics with more than two decades of experience under her belt.
“She's strong, mature and very wise. She just needs time to prove it,” said Emmanuel Kihaule, a seasoned Tanzanian journalist and social commentator. Evans Rubama, another social commentator, added: “It is about her taking her own path, shunning the old guard's path, considering all the advice she can get from trusted aides and colleagues, putting her own ears to the ground and listening for the voices in the margins.”
Report by Bob Karashani, Dorothy Ndalu and Aggrey Mutambo