Unable to cook, it is Suluhu's time to serve
Monday March 22 2021
Confirmed on Friday as Tanzania's first female president following the demise of John Magufuli, Samia Suluhu Hassan, 61, is probably best known for her super-cool, unflappable demeanour and penchant for speaking in a calm manner, whatever the situation. But those who know her better are aware of a ring of steel behind that façade.
“It’s possible that some people take my soft-spoken nature as a sign of weakness,” she told the British Broadcasting Corporation in an interview at her Dar es Salaam residence last March, “but to make them understand you doesn't mean you have to shout. I have been getting my messages across just fine with this same approach all these years. Eventually people understand very well whatever I am intending to tell them.”
It is that confident outlook that Tanzanians expect the former vice president and mother of four, also known for a multi-colour, hijab-based dressing style, to display as she prepares to navigate a rocky political terrain following the sudden death of a leader who dramatically changed the country's social and economic landscape.
This will include having to handle a ruling CCM party that many consider fragmented by the late Magufuli's largely successful efforts to bend it to his considerable will while he was in power, as well as what one observer described as “the patriarchal structure within the Tanzanian political landscape”.
But going by the general feeling among Tanzanians, Ms Suluhu possesses the necessary mental wherewithal to avoid being gender-stereotyped and to crack the whip when she needs to. The assumption is that, though little is really known about her beyond Tanzania's borders, she is already a veteran of Tanzanian politics with more than two decades of experience and seasoning 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.”
Responding to a question during an interview with the state broadcaster last March when she was still vice president, Ms Suluhu dismissed the notion that a woman might find the presidency too tough to handle.
“It is very possible for a woman to run this country. Why shouldn't it be when it has been done successfully elsewhere? If a woman like me can be vice president, what's to prevent another from being president?
“Remember, in the 2015 election at least two women were in the final shortlist for the CCM presidential election ticket, along with President Magufuli. Even then it could have gone very differently,” she said, with a wry smile.
RISE TO LEADERSHIP
Born in the former sultanate of Zanzibar on January 27, 1960, Ms Suluhu was better known as a women’s rights activist with no interest in contemporary politics before 2000.After completing her primary and secondary school education entirely in Zanzibar in the late 1970s, she started very low (as an office clerk) in the Zanzibar government system. Her first foray into elective politics was at the age of 40 when she was elected as a special seat member of the Zanzibar Parliament.
By then her reputation as an activist was such that then-president Amani Karume immediately appointed her to his cabinet as the only woman holding a senior ministerial portfolio, of trade and tourism.
In 2010 she won a seat in Tanzania’s national parliament, and in 2014 President Jakaya Kikwete appointed her Minister of State in charge of Union Affairs between the mainland and Zanzibar. That same year, she was elected vice-chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly set up by Kikwete to draft a new national constitution.
It was the coolness she displayed in that difficult role of coordinating frequently fractious debates among assembly members of what should, and shouldn’t, be included in the new constitution, that put her firmly in the public spotlight.
Even then, Ms Suluhu was a somewhat surprise choice by Mr Magufuli to be his running mate in the 2015 election. On winning, she became the second female vice president in the East African Community, following Uganda's Specioza Naigaga Wandera who was in office from 1994 to 2003.
As VP, Ms Suluhu spent the last five years-plus on the periphery as President Magufuli ruled the country with an iron fist, which means her personal views on various issues remained largely unknown.
The new leader also maintains a very private personal life. In 1978, aged just 18, she married Hafidh Ameir, an agricultural academic then also employed by the Zanzibar government. They have four children together - three sons and one daughter. Only the daughter, Mwanu Hafidh Ameir, has followed the mother's footsteps into politics and sits in the Zanzibar House of Representatives.
Mr Ameir, who is now retired, has kept a low profile during his wife's political rise. Since Ms Suluhu became vice president the two have not been photographed together in public. Reliable sources describe him as a quiet, religious man who continues to live in Zanzibar and is sometimes introduced as “the vice president's (now president) husband” at public functions within the archipelago.
In the BBC interview at her home last year, Ms Suluhu expressed regret that her official duties prevented her from entering the kitchen and doing what she enjoys most in her spare time, cooking.
“Sometimes the urge really hits me, but my grandchildren whom I live with here keep pushing me away, and I have to take a back seat,” she said. “Apparently the nature of my job means I am not allowed to dabble in that kind of thing.”
And now that she's President, it will be a while longer before that cooking hobby gets the attention it deserves, for Ms Suluhu has just been cast from the frying pan into the fire.