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

DODOMA, Tanzania – Shortly before midnight one spring night last year, Samia Suluhu Hassan, then Tanzania’s first female vice president, appeared on television to tell a shocked nation that the president had died.

President John Magufuli, an autocrat known as ‘The Bulldozer’, had denied the existence of coronavirus in his country, rejected Covid vaccines and died after a week of public absence amid unreported reports. confirmed that he had contracted the virus.

His death catapulted Mrs. Hassan to 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, she is due to meet in Washington with another trailblazer, Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as vice president of the United States.

Since taking office, Ms. Hassan has embarked on a different path than her predecessor: she has encouraged vaccinations against Covid by having herself vaccinated publicly, lifted the ban on pregnant girls in schools and began to change some Magufuli-era economic regulations to attract them. investors.

But her first challenge, Ms Hassan said in an interview last week at the state house in the capital, Dodoma, was to overcome the idea that a woman could not lead Tanzania.

“Most people couldn’t believe that we could have a female president and she could keep her promises,” Ms Hassan said. “The challenge was to create trust in people that yes, I can do it.”

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

“They all gave me the courage to be able to do this,” said Ms Hassan, who was fasting during 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 bring her country out of the cold after five years of isolationism under Mr Magufuli, who rarely traveled abroad.

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

But Ms Hassan, who is set to run for president in 2025, leads a polarized nation with a struggling economy and rising unemployment, a slow pace of vaccine rollout and a growing clamor for constitutional overhauls.

Besides meeting with US officials during her trip to the United States, she is also ready to woo investors 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 that abstained in the United Nations vote condemning the war – a move Ms Hassan said was in line with Tanzania’s longstanding non-alignment position.

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

Ms Hassan, 62, was born in the Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of mainland Tanzania to a stay-at-home mother and a teacher father. After high school, she earned bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees in economics and public administration from schools in Tanzania and Britain. She then worked with 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 luck in government.

A member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi — or Revolution Party — since the late 1980s, she was elected as an MP for Zanzibar in 2000 before joining 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 becoming vice-president in 2015. Ms Hassan is married to Hafidh Ameir Hafidh, a former professor of agriculture, with whom she has three sons and a daughter .

Ms Hassan, who is soft-spoken and appears reserved, said that as vice-president it was sometimes “difficult” to work with Mr Magufuli, and that she argued with him over several issues, including his Covid denial. She refuted the idea that he succumbed to Covid and said he died of heart complications.

As president, she said, her main priority was to revive the economy, build thousands of schools and health centers, extend drinking water and electricity to rural areas and to carry out key infrastructure projects, including a railway line and a large hydroelectric plant. She said more than 250 new businesses had already been registered in the country last year.

Yet concerns persist about the pace of change under his government.

Over the past year, activists have been removed, two newspapers were temporarily suspended by the government and the main opposition leader, Freeman Mbowe, was imprisoned for several months on terrorism-related charges before his release. Political gatherings outside of elections have been banned in the country since 2016, when the government accused the opposition of wanting to use them to provoke mass civil disobedience. Campaigners have also questioned whether Ms Hassan has pledged to revise the constitution, which grants sweeping powers to the executive 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 “enormous” and “expensive” effort to change 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 gatherings. She added that she intended to level the playing field, even if it cost her the presidency in the next election.

She also found a conciliatory note with the political opposition and civil society.

On a recent morning, she arrived to a packed hall in the capital to chair a conference on how to improve democratic space in the country. Sitting next to him on stage was one of the leaders of the country’s main opposition parties, who under his predecessor had been arrested and convicted of sedition, and whose other party members had been beaten, sprayed with tear gas and deprived of the possibility of organizing rallies.

“Things have changed,” Zitto Kabwe, the opposition leader, said in an interview the next day. “We started to breathe some fresh air from the day the new president took office.”

But while he would like to see policy changes put in place quickly, Mr Kabwe said he also understood Ms Hassan’s predilection for incremental change. “She’s a leader who wants consensus, and consensus takes time,” he said.

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

Simon Mkina, the publisher and editor of Mawio, an investigative weekly which she took over, said she should revise media laws so that future leaders do not abuse them. “She has to act,” he said.

With three more years to go until the next election, Ms. Hassan has her work cut out for her.

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

“She could leave behind a legacy that few other presidents have succeeded in,” Ms Karume said in an interview at her home in the port city of Dar es Salaam. “And imagine doing this in the aftermath of a historic accident. It’s going to be amazing.”

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