Samia Suluhu’s First Year In Office: A Ray Of Hope For Tanzania


Samia Suluhu’s First Year In Office: A Ray Of Hope For Tanzania

The State House in Dar es Salaam is no stranger to new faces. In a region where presidential elections are known for bloodletting and presidents’ wont for not letting go their seats at whatever cost is something of which judicial notice has all but been taken, Tanzania is the “pariah”, albeit a good one, if that exists. In the period between 1985 and 2021 Tanzania saw four men becoming president, lead, and go – in peace. For comparison, in the same period, Uganda has had – and continues to have – one man at the top. What Tanzania did not have in all that time, was the experience of losing a serving head of state – something that sparked off a genocide in neighbouring Rwanda – and a female president. However, both changed on 19th, March 2021.

First, the rumour mills filled with stories that the then president, John Pombe Magufuli, was sick, something the government vehemently denied – videos, allegedly of him going about his work were shared to clear any lingering doubts. Then, came the dreaded announcement; the president, a man known for making press-ups at campaign rallies was dead. Anxiously, leaders and citizens alike in the region watched Tanzania wade through the unfamiliar territory of losing a serving head of State. In the end, not a single bullet was fired – save for those ceremoniously released to give a distinguished Statesman military honours at his burial – as some had feared would be the case in a power struggle. Constitutionalism won, and the natural heiress to the throne, Samia Suluhu, Vice President under Magufuli took the higher oath and became President on March 19th, 2021.


William Shakespeare must have had leaders like Suluhu in mind when he coined his famous uneasy is the head that wears the crown phrase from Henry IV Part 2, for what statement better describes a leader ascending to the kind of throne she inherited? Like most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had deleteriously effected Tanzania. As of April 2019, tourism which accounted for over 24 per cent of Tanzania’s total share of exports, was only the second largest foreign exchange earner after agriculture. However, in the face of COVID-19 – and precautions taken by governments around the world to protect their citizens from the deadly virus – the number of tourists to the East African nation plummeted by 60 per cent and revenues from public sector tourism institutions nosedived by about 72 per cent from 489.4 billion Tanzanian Shillings in 2019 to 136.2 billion in 2020. A study by the multinational audit, consulting, and advisory firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (Deloitte) painted a depressing picture of the Tanzania economy in the face of COVID-19; remittance inflow which accounted for 0.71 per cent of GDP declined, exports declined from USD 5.4 billion in 2019 to 5.1 2020, and the tax to GDP ratio was projected to decline from 13.5 per cent in 2018/19 to 13.1 in 2019/20. To complicate matters further, her predecessor, bearer of a Doctorate degree in Chemistry from the prestigious University of Dar es Salaam, took a stand bordering denialism against the COVID-19 pandemic. As leaders around the world scrambled for COVID-19 vaccines to give their citizens; he didn’t. Instead, he  opted for “domestic methods” such as steam inhalation, and he imported a controversial anti-COVID-19 drink from the island nation of Madagascar – president Magufuli went on to caution that the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved COVID-19 vaccines were “dangerous”.

Also easily noticeable was the fact that during Magufuli’s leadership the East African Community’s (E.A.C) attempts at integration did not register much progress. It was during his tenure that Tanzania – also the community headquarters – engaged in trade disputes with neighbouring Kenya and Uganda that started with banning maize imports and culminated into banning national airlines – the latter as a result of mistrust on how best the COVID-19 pandemic was to be handled. In one instance, he asked his countrymen and women to sell their produces at exorbitant prices to neighbours, something many read as a vailed reference to E.A.C countries. In fact, Tim Murithi – professor in African studies at the university of Free Town in South Africa and the head of peacebuilding interventions at the institute for justice and reconciliation – took the view that his Magufuli’s passing “created an opening for renewing the relationship between Tanzania and the EAC member states.”

Still, in the time he was president, civic space and the room for dissent ebbed to a new low; stifling dissent were his laws branded, targeted were dissenting voices, and human rights were feared to have taken a noticeable decline. On November 21, 2019, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs and East African Co-operation, Palamagamba Kabudi, Tanzania lodged an application to “temporarily” withdraw from some clauses of the African Human Rights Commission – interestingly based in Arusha Tanzania. Specifically, Tanzania wanted to withdraw from clauses that allowed for individuals and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to bring cases against it.

Whatever was going on in Suluhu’s mind as she took the oath that made her Tanzania’s first female president – and East Africa’s second after Slyvie Kiningi who served in acting capacity in neighbouring Burundi between February and October 1993 – this was the Tanzania she inherited. As Rwanda’s Kagame once said, you fight with the army you have, not the one you wish you had. Tanzania was at crossroads and in desperate need a of superman, a superwoman – a wonder woman – to turn the tide. Would Suluhu rise to the task or sink under it?


Let us start from the East African Community front: When it comes to matters of EAC integrations, Tanzania has been rather amble. First, being a founding member of another regional block – the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) – puts her in the situation Odhiambo[1] described as “…complicating coordination…since preferential arrangements under each of these agreements differ” which leads to massive smuggling and customs fraud caused by the differing rates which prompt many importers to under declare their imports under the lowest tariff regime. However, Tanzania’s foot-dragging on the EAC didn’t start with Magufuli. During the terms of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete, the presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda formed a block christened the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (CoW) to further their activities as a block without engaging the other two member states, Tanzania and Burundi, which were accused of being intransigent on matters of integration. So, how has Samia fared on EAC integration during her first year in office?

Only three weeks after Suluhu took oath of the presidency, her maiden trip as head of state to took her to Entebbe where she met her Uganda counterpart, Museveni. In Uganda, the two leaders signed the Host Government Agreement clearing way for the Final Investment Decision (FID) on the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) a $ 3.55 billion project for the world’s longest electronically heated pipeline. Next the Tanzanian Presidential jet landed and taxied at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Kenya’s busy bustling Capital on May 4, 2021. Speaking at the Kenya-Tanzania Investment Forum at the Nairobi Serena Hotel both leaders promised to expeditiously open for trade and work to clear whatever barriers impeded progress in the field of business. Speaking rhythmically in Swahili, Suluhu told her audience of Tanzanians and Kenyans to count themselves lucky to have independence (Uhuru) on one side and solutions (Suluhu) on the other, to do business. So, within the first two months of her tenure as President, Suluhu had visited two key partners – and original members of the EAC. In mid-July she landed in Bujumbura. There, she called on the international community to lift sanctions against the nation to allow for faster and more robust economic progress – the said sanctions were lifted months later much to the delight of the Bujumbura administration that lauded Tanzania for her role. Finally, she visited Kigali in August leaving the newest entrant to the EAC block – South Sudan – as the only EAC nation she is yet to visit. Suluhu’s message is loud and clear – Tanzania is back in matters of EAC integration in words, and action. So, on matters of integration Samia has been WILLING member of the block over the last twelve months. Save for ordinary squabbles between technocrats, her ascendency has calmed the accusations and counteraccusations of trade disputes between Tanzania and the community member states.

Relatedly, let us now look at how she fared on matters of taking Tanzania back to the “league of nations” where her predecessor had all but taken it off. During his first term of presidency 2015 – 2020, Magufuli made a total of just nine trips outside Tanzania. Starting with Rwanda, he later visited Uganda and Kenya in 2016. In 2017 he visited Ethiopia where he attended the 28th African Union (AU) Heads of State meeting in Addis Ababa and inaugurated a facility named after Tanzania’s founding father – also a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) the predecessor of AU – Julius Nyerere. A second visit to Uganda was his final trip outside Tanzania in 2017. His third trip to Uganda in 2018 was also his only foreign trip in 2018. His busiest year in terms of foreign trips was 2019 with visits to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. The first three countries were all visited on a single trip made between 25th May and 30th, he visited Zambia in October and that was it. Not once did the president go to a nation in West, or North Africa, let alone outside the continent. As one of his first pronouncements in office, President Magufuli banned ‘inessential’ foreign trips for civil servants and restricted the most essential senior figures in government to business class flights as a cost-cutting mechanism. This approach to leadership seemed popular not just to some of the ordinary people in Tanzania, but regionally especially in Kenya, and Uganda where many have decried wasteful expenditures by their own governments for years, as such, the hashtag “What would Magufuli do” trended on social media as netizens suggested humorous cost-effect solutions to problems – like Magufuli was doing. However, behind the hashtags and social media fun, pundits worries that his approach isolated Tanzania from the rest of the world. “…he (Magufuli) has managed to isolate the country internationally by pursuing an isolationist foreign policy…” wrote Nicodemus Minde, a PhD Fellow at United Sates International University The Conversation. Tanzania’s ‘isolation’ was exacerbated with the outbreak of COVID-19. Faced with an existential crisis, leaders around the world sought solutions prevent to the virus, different as they were, most centralised on limiting human-to-human interactions; full and partial lockdowns were instituted to this end nonessential travels beyond national boundaries greatly limited – Magufuli didn’t buy into these. At different times, he made various eyebrow-raising statements about the virus to justify his stands. At one point, he said Tanzania did not need a lockdown as ‘God will protect’ his citizens from the virus and then went on to call for three-days of prayer – for his stand on the virus Foreign Policy Magazine christening him “Africa’s COVID-19 Denialist-in-Chief”. In the one year she has been in office President Samia Suluhu has made a total of fifteen trips – five more than her predecessor made in five years. She has visited Mozambique and Uganda twice, Burundi, Egypt, France, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, and Zambia once, and flew beyond the continent to the United Kingdom, United States, Belgium, and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. Clearly, she is not reading from Magufuli’s playbook that some feared would isolate the nation. Also reversed is Magufuli’s stance on the COVID-19 pandemic. When Samia Suluhu made her maiden trip to Uganda one of the things that stood out was the fact that she wore a facemask. Widely accepted and adopted as a COVID-19 preventative measure against COVID-19, the white mask was supposed to be as ordinary as her carrying a hand bag, it wasn’t and went on to make news especially because Magufuli was never seen wearing one during his reign and nor did Tanzania have a policy on wearing facemasks. She later launched a vaccination campaign and received the jab herself, and Tanzania went back to reporting cases of COVID-19 as other nations around the world did, something the country had not done in a year during Magufuli’s tenure further demonstrating her commitment to take Tanzania back to the world.

As stated earlier, Tanzania’s report card on Human Rights during the tenure of president Magufuli was worrying; repressive laws were passed, dissenting voices jailed, the media gagged, and leading opposition figure and MP Tundu Lissu found solace in Belgium after surviving an attempt on his life in 2017 where he was shot sixteen times and had go for treatment and further management in Europe. The decline in Human Rights and civil liberties is evident when one looks at the country’s ratings over the years as reported by international freedom and rights watcher, Freedom House; in 2017 Tanzania scored 58 out of 100 for civil and political freedoms, in 2018 the nation declined to 52 out of 100, in 2019 it declined to 45 out of 100, in 2020 it moved to 40 out of 100, and in 2021 it fell further to 34 out of 100. So, how has Suluhu fared in her first twelve months on the front of human rights? Four months into her presidency, Samia cast doubts on her commitment to human rights, freedom, and democracy with the arrest of twelve opposition leaders including Freeman Mbowe – who was later charged with ‘terror-related’ crimes. In a statement, the United States Congresswoman and chair of Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa Karen Bass said she was “concerned” as the arrest “minimised any hope” presented by the appointment of Samia Suluhu that had “looked to be on a different path for leading Tanzania forward to a more democratic society.” However, after seven months in jail, the opposition strongman and his three co-accused were released after the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) dropped the charges against them. The United States ambassador to Tanzania, Donald Wright welcomed the move describing it in a tweet as “a welcome opportunity for Tanzania to turn page and focus on the future.” In mid-February when the leader visited Brussels she met and held a conversation with Tundu Lissu. In an interview with the East African newspaper – page 4 and 5 of the 19th – 25th February 2022 publication – the opposition leader revealed that he requested for the interview and the request was granted, further demonstrating Samia’s commitment to mend fences with those on the opposite side of the political aisle. As for media freedom, one of Samia’s first moves as president was to restore the freedom her predecessor had taken away from them by re-opening the close and allowing for more operating space.

Samia has also taken a deliberate move to empower women through political appointments. Among other things, she has deliberately appointed women to powerful ministries these include Stergomena Tax who she appointed the country’s first female minister for defence, Liberata Mulumula, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ummy Mwalimu, the Minister of Health, and Dorothy Honesphoro Gwajima the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of Policy, Parliamentary Affairs, Labour, Employment, Youth and Disability. In a cabinet of nine, four of her ministers are female. Speaking at the swearing-in ceremony of Stergomena Tax Samia said the appointment was a “deliberate” one. “I have decided to break the long-time myth that in the Defence Ministry there should be a man with muscles”. When the position of national assembly speaker fell vacant after the resignation of Job Ndugai on 6th January 2022 the reins were picked up by another woman – Dr Tulia Ackson who garnered 100 per cent of the votes for speakership – effectively giving women two of the country’s three arms of government.   


However, as one would expect, the kind of change Samia is up for is not one achieved with ease – after all, even Hercules could only clean the Augean Stables by diverting rivers.

First, Samia faces the uphill task of dealing with the laws left in place by her predecessor. Despite her noticeable good intentions, the East African called for cautious optimism since the laws used by Magufuli to curtail freedoms are still in place and not about to change, “The laws Magufuli used… are still in place and Samia says the time for Constitutional review is not ripe. Although power play, grumblings of discontent and other intrigues within the CCM[2] haven’t yet come to a head, pundits say they will inevitably do before the next General Election in which she is expected to defend her seat.” In the same story Samia noted was quoted saying that a Constitutional review, to change these laws is “not ripe”, so, she has had to put up with them – and will most likely continue – for the time being. Despite her attitude, these laws can still be used to roll back some of the gains made.

Samia has to put up with another challenge of living in the shadow of Magufuli as the Conversation wrote soon after she assumed office. Tanzania’s 2020 General Election basically tuckered out the opposition – thanks to years of repression under Magufuli and electoral fraud. In the end CCM gained control of all local government councils, and 97 per cent of directly elected seats in the national assembly. Most of these winners attributed their success to non-other than Magufuli yet his sudden death put them squarely under the leadership of Samia Suluhu. It is not surprising therefore, that some of the Magufuli hardliners like former speaker Job Ndugai have since clashed with the president over international borrowing – something Magufuli had stayed away from. Ndugai questioned government’s external borrowing warning that “There is a day this country will be auctioned.” While he eventually apologised to the president – an apology that was rejected – and went on to resign the position, this clash shows the kind of challenges likely to face the government of Samia Suluhu in both the short-and long-term run.

In sum, president Samia Suluhu represents great hope for Tanzania as a team player in the league of nations, East African Community, and the nation’s democracy but there is a lot more that needs to be done.    

[1] The Distribution of Costs and Benefits in Trade in the Context of the East African Regional Integration Process, Walter Odhiambo 2011.

[2] Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) Tanzania’s ruling party that has been in power since independence in 1961 having changed the name from TANU.