Tanzania’s first female president wants to bring her nation out of the cold

DODOMA, Tanzania — Just before midnight on a spring night last year, Samia Suluhu Hassan, then Tanzania’s first female vice president, appeared on television to announce the death of the president to a shocked nation.

President John Magufuli, an autocrat known as “The Bulldozer,” had denied the existence of the coronavirus in his country, rejected Covid vaccines and died after weeks of absence from the public amid unconfirmed reports that he had contracted the virus.

His death catapulted Mrs. Hassan into a historic position as Tanzania’s first female President. Known as “Mama Samia,” she is currently the only female head of government in Africa. On Friday in Washington, she met with a trailblazer, Kamala Harris, the first woman and first woman of color to become Vice President of the United States.

Since taking office, Ms Hassan has taken a different path from her predecessor: she promoted Covid vaccination by publicly self-vaccinating herself, lifted a ban on pregnant girls in schools, and began changing some Magufuli-era economic regulations to to lure back investors.

But her first challenge, Ms Hassan said in an interview in the capital Dodoma’s House of Representatives last week, is to overcome the notion that a woman cannot lead Tanzania.

“Most people couldn’t believe that we can have a woman as President and she can deliver,” Ms Hassan said. “The challenge was to give people confidence that I could do it.”

She said other African women leaders – including Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Sahle-Work Zewde, the president (though not head of government) of Ethiopia – were quick to come to her support, urging her in a virtual meeting to remain confident , seek advice and listen to your inner voice.

“You all gave me courage that you can do it,” said Ms. Hassan, who was fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Since coming to power in March last year, Ms Hassan has positioned herself as a unifying national figure, ready to challenge the establishment and determined to leave her country after five years of isolation under Mr Magufuli, who rarely traveled abroad get out of the cold.

Tanzania, a nation of 60 million people bordering eight other countries in east, central and southern Africa, has long been considered a bulwark of stability in a region torn by ethnic strife and civil war.

But Ms Hassan, who is expected to run for president in 2025, is taking the helm of a polarized nation with a struggling economy and rising unemployment, a slow pace of vaccine delivery and a growing call for constitutional changes.

In addition to meeting American officials during her trip to the United States, she will also court investors, seek support to improve public health partnerships and promote Tanzania as a vibrant tourist destination.

In Washington, one issue Ms. Hassan is likely to face is the war in Ukraine. Tanzania was among African nations to abstain in the United Nations vote to condemn the war – a move, Ms Hassan said, that is consistent with Tanzania’s long-standing non-aligned position.

When asked about this, she said that “we in Tanzania don’t know why they are fighting,” adding that Russia and Ukraine should sit down to talk. “The world needs to convince Putin not to fight,” she said.

Ms Hassan, 62, was born in the Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of Tanzania to a housewife and a schoolteacher. After high school, she completed undergraduate and postgraduate courses in economics and public administration in schools in Tanzania and the UK. She later worked at the World Food Program and held positions in various non-governmental organizations in Zanzibar.

But at the turn of the century, she decided to try her hand at government.

She has been a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party – or Party of Revolution – since the late 1980s and was elected MP in Zanzibar in 2000 before entering the national parliament in 2010. Ms. Hassan, who sits on the party’s Central Committee, quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a minister in the vice president’s office and then rising to the vice presidency in 2015. Ms Hassan is married to Hafidh Ameir Hafidh, a former agricultural lecturer, with whom she has three sons and a daughter.

Ms Hassan, who speaks softly and appears reserved, said that as vice-president it was sometimes “tough” to work with Mr Magufuli and that she had clashed with him on several issues, including his denial of Covid. She dismissed the idea that he had succumbed to Covid, saying he died of heart complications.

As president, she said her top priorities are reviving the economy, building thousands of schools and health clinics, bringing clean water and electricity to rural areas, and completing key infrastructure projects — including a railroad line and a major hydroelectric power plant. She said that more than 250 new companies had already been registered in the country last year.

Still, there are concerns about the pace of change under her government.

Last year were activists kidnapped, two newspapers were temporarily shut down by the government and the main opposition leader, Freeman Mbowe, was jailed for several months on terrorism charges before being released. Political rallies outside of elections have been banned in the country since 2016, when the government accused the opposition of wanting to use them for civil disobedience. Activists also questioned whether Ms Hassan had committed to reviewing the constitution, which gives the executive branch wide powers and was adopted in 1977 when the country was still a one-party state.

Ms Hassan said she wanted to focus on fixing the economy before turning to the “huge” and “costly” endeavor of changing the constitution. She said she had set up a task force within the Council of Political Parties to make recommendations on changes, including lifting the ban on political rallies. She added that she was keen to create a level playing field, even if it cost her the presidency in the next election.

She has also adopted a conciliatory tone towards the political opposition and civil society.

On a recent morning, she arrived at a crowded hall in the capital to chair a conference discussing how to improve the country’s democratic space. Sitting next to her on the stage was one of the leaders of the country’s main opposition parties, arrested under her predecessor and convicted of sedition, and whose party colleagues were beaten, tear gassed and denied the opportunity to hold rallies.

“Things have changed,” opposition leader Zitto Kabwe said in an interview the next day. “Since the new president took office, we’ve started to breathe fresh air.”

But while he would like the policy changes to be implemented quickly, Mr Kabwe said he also understood Ms Hassan’s penchant for incremental change. “She’s a leader who wants consensus, and consensus takes time,” he said.

Last year, Mrs Hassan’s government lifted the ban on four newspapers, but it has yet to change some of the restrictive laws that have been used to undermine media freedom.

Simon Mkina, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Mawio, a weekly investigative newspaper she reinstated, said she should revise media laws so future leaders don’t abuse them. “She must act,” he said.

Ms. Hassan still has three years to go before the next elections.

Fatma Karume, a prominent Tanzanian lawyer who was disbarred and had her office bombed for challenging Mr Magufuli’s government, said Ms Hassan has a chance to restore Tanzanians’ faith in democracy and transform the country .

“She could leave a legacy that few other presidents have been able to match,” Ms Karume said in an interview at her home in the port city of Dar es Salaam. “And imagine doing this because of a historic accident. It will be great.” Tanzania’s first female president wants to bring her nation out of the cold

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