As the first 100 days pass since Samia Suluhu Hassan was unexpectedly propelled to Tanzania’s presidency, her less combative style of leadership compared to predecessor John Magufuli is raising expectations of policy change and a reopening of civic space – but how much she is prepared to truly transform the country remains in doubt.
Magufuli’s sudden death left an unfinished legacy and a deeply polarized nation as he wielded the considerable power of Tanzania’s executive to shut down critical voices, and Hassan has been reluctant to distance herself from him so far, asserting the two of them are ‘essentially the same person’.
This pragmatic approach is understandable as she navigates the initial stages of an uncertain political transition and resistance within the dominant ruling party, but it is a stance which invites questions over the potential for transformative change, notably a much-needed new constitution.
Cautious optimism emerging
Hassan’s cleanest break with the past is reversing a COVID-19 policy shaped by Magufuli’s rejection of vaccines and outright denial that the disease was spreading in Tanzania. Hassan has largely deferred to an independent scientific panel, gradually endorsed limited preventative measures, signalled she will order vaccines, and released the first update on case numbers since April 2020.
Visits to Kenya, Mozambique and twice to Uganda have also demonstrated the new president’s willingness to reset foreign relations strained under Magufuli – an insular figure who made just ten trips abroad during six years in office. And her new foreign minister’s claim Tanzania will soon ratify the African Continental Free Trade Agreement points to favourable prospects for regional integration.
There are also indications of a change in the business environment, with the president urging her government not to ‘flex our muscles against investors’. Although easily forgotten that the previous administration made similar overtures early in its second term, Hassan does have a relatively clean slate and is being endorsed by prominent businesspeople and multinationals who flitted in and out of favour with her predecessor.
A new director of public prosecutions (DPP) has also softened the government stance on outstanding cases of ‘economic sabotage’ – a legal instrument intended to crack down on corruption which Magufuli increasingly used to discipline the private sector.
Among those now bailed after years in prison without trial are businesspeople arrested under the globally acclaimed anti-corruption drive of Magufuli’s own first 100 days as president – providing a timely reminder that early promise is no guarantee of lasting change.
Uncertain prospects for lasting change
Certainly most of Tanzania’s challenges run deeper than anything which can be tackled simply by changes of leadership style or immediate policy. The parliament effectively remains an extension of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party caucus, with the retention of the Magufuli-era ban on political gatherings further restricting alternative sources of government scrutiny. And although Hassan made early promises to meet with opposition leaders, this has not yet materialized.
Political prisoners remain in custody, including multiple opposition candidates and supporters arrested in the course of the 2020 general elections, and fresh reports of abductions of civil society activists have sparked concern with Hassan remaining silent on reforms to Tanzania’s security services or investigations into past transgressions.
And her call for a blanket reopening of banned media outlets has ultimately applied only to online television, but would in any case have left untouched the restrictive legal framework underpinning Tanzania’s steep decline in freedom of expression.
Hassan’s government appointments also fit this uncertain pattern, with glimpses of change from the impunity of the Magufuli era – suspending a notorious district commissioner and replacing the head of the civil service after just 33 days – tempered by the retention of COVID-denying health minister Dorothy Gwajima and the appointment as a High Court judge of former DPP Biswalo Mganga, the orchestrator of an infamous campaign of unbailable legal charges selectively applied to punish dissenting voices.
In addition, the expectations Tanzania’s first female president would adopt a groundbreaking approach to gender equality in key government positions have not yet been met with the status quo largely preserved so far. President Hassan may have halted Tanzania’s slide away from democracy but she is yet to fully embrace measures needed to reverse it.
The constitution test
The need for a new constitution is the ultimate test of Hassan’s resolve and could define her legacy, as opposition and civil society activists argue the Magufuli era amply demonstrated Tanzania’s vulnerability to authoritarianism.
But this does not sit well with the ruling party because the CCM worries that a new constitution would strip its powers and topple it from the summit of Tanzania’s politics – a position it has occupied since independence. This belief was evident during the last constitutional review in 2014 and is still the belief now.
Hassan’s words suggest she intends to side with her party on this. Asking for time to strengthen Tanzania’s economy before addressing the constitution and the ban on political rallies is the clearest validation of her claim that she and her predecessor are one and the same – Magufuli asked citizens to ‘let me straighten up the country first’ before dealing with the constitution.
Although unclear if, or when, Hassan’s undefined threshold for economic success will be met, a change in stance is increasingly unlikely while she keeps one eye on the party nomination for the 2025 elections which could see her elected as president in her own right.
Movement on the constitutional question may be blocked for now, but Hassan’s next 100 days must demonstrate a greater will to define and take ownership of her own vision for Tanzania, offering concrete policy to match the changes in approach seen so far. But in granting her further patience, Tanzanians should continue to question not only what has changed under their new president but how much is likely to stay that way.