Tanzania's Samia should not relent in her push for reforms

Saturday January 07 2023

Tanzania President Samia at State House Dar es Salaam where she announced the lifting of the ban on opposition political rallies on January 3, 2023. PHOTO | IKULU


How do you eat an elephant? “Bite by bite,” goes the refrain. That is what President Samia Suluhu Hassan has been doing as she set about the complex task of reforming Tanzania since she assumed the mantle nearly two years ago. As she enters the consolidation phase, she is making some groundbreaking decisions.

This week, she lifted the ban on political rallies by the opposition. In a country with a pretentious — and sometimes prudish — elite, she has also reversed draconian directives such as the decree that barred student moms from returning to class.

Seen as high a stakes bet, the decision to break the shackles on freedom of association and political debate sets the stage for a vibrant and potentially rowdy democratic transition. It also goes against the grain of many of her predecessors, who chose to maintain the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi’s supremacy through repression.

Undoing CCM’s legacy of political repression and constipated democracy is an act of courage on her part. It pits her against conservative elements within the CCM. But it is also a necessary act of redemption for her as a person who promised political reform, CCM as an organisation, and Tanzania as a united and progressive entity. Doing otherwise would spell collective decline and doom for Tanzania.

Samia, however, cannot bring success on her own. She needs buy-in across the Tanzania society. To pull it off, all pro-reform forces both within CCM and the opposition need to rally around her to drive a process that is likely to meet subtle forms of resistance, because it fundamentally alters the status quo.

It can be argued that all President Samia’s recent decisions were inevitable. They are steps Tanzania must take if it is to reclaim and retain its position as peaceful and stable democracy in the region; a crown it had ceded to competitors. A certain generation of Tanzanians must have been slightly embarrassed that a country that in 1985 was the second in the region after Uganda to discard single-party rule should have failed the test of democracy; that Johnny-come-lately Kenya snatched the crown of leading democratic reforms.


In any case, Kenya should now become a source of confidence for Samia and Tanzania because it is a perfect template for the pros and cons of a liberal democracy. Kenya’s democratic transition suffered avoidable birth pangs because of resistance from the group that controlled power. Those are pains CCM and Tanzania can avoid by simply flowing along with popular demands for reform.

Making political pronouncements that make life easier for politicians is good but needs to be followed by actions that alter the political and legal structure of the state to match the enduring ambitions of successive generations. For reform not to slip into consensus of the elite, President Samia must now take a bite at the superstructure of the tools and harnesses that sustained a repressive state. That will require the country to embark on a comprehensive review of the Constitution and restoration of freedoms to facilitate public participation in the process.

One hopes there will be no loss of momentum in making Tanzania an open, democratic society, where the rule of law is observed and respected.