Political scientists use the concept of presidential “honeymoon” to indicate a grace period at the beginning of each new administration in which accommodation and cordial cooperation predominate. The honeymoon period, usually within a period of three months or so, is generally characterised by a relatively gentle treatment of the new president.
During this euphoric period, new presidents enjoy good relations with the public and with the press that conveys their messages to the latter: coverage is for the most part neutral or positive in tone. The media and analysts are concerned with impressions and personalities, like what are the new faces in the cabinet etcetera.
In a rallying-behind-the-flag manner, criticism and certain kinds of questions are less likely to be raised as almost everybody sits back and hopes for the best. Although this may seem like an oversimplified view of the early days of a presidency, it offers important analytical insights.
The post-election period is usually considered to be a time of new beginnings and healing after partisan bickering characteristic of electoral campaigns or even violence in some cases. The new president would call for unity, reconciliation, and nation-building, moving forward into a future that is filled with hope and promise! The possibility of change thus looms large. Resultantly, the benefit of the doubt is given to the new (wo)man as s/he finds her/his way out.
A president of many firsts
President Samia Suluhu Hassan did not ascend the presidency through an election. It is with the death of a seating president, which unexpectedly had happened. In Samia’s 100 Days of Uhuru Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo, explains to his readers that the unexpected leader came with “many firsts.”
“First Woman, First Zanzibari-born and even First Hijab-wearing woman to become a President of a country in Africa. This article may even end up here and suffice to mark the 100 days,” Zitto in his analysis. The excitement was high that even the critics had to withhold their ‘heart failed congratulations’ (see here also) at least for a moment.
Samia’s 100 days were highly anticipated: commentators particularly weighed in on priorities within the fields of domestic and foreign policy, on democratic rights and on the COVID19 pandemic. I remember reading a poem composed by one critic “I Can Now Breath” in which the poet imagines Samia’s presidency as fresh air in the body politic, a springtime where flowers blossom.
There were those who saw her as a symbol of affection; her reconciliatory tone and soft-spoken nature were considered to be important personal attributes a country needed most after the heavy-handed leadership of her predecessor.
On the international stage, Samia emphasised that Tanzania is not an island and that she was going to open the country up. This early pronouncement was an act of sending signals that Tanzania has changed the tone of engagement with the outside world, the West in particular, with which former president John Magufuli had frosty relations.
President Samia has won praises for re-engaging regional and global allies and beginning to restore Tanzania’s historical proactive commitments to international cooperation after her immediate predecessor generally stepped back from the world. She has even announced (unspecified) plans for rebranding the country in an effort to restore her image on the international stage.
It then appears that the primary focus is the international community that is relatively easier to seduce with rhetoric. However, it is on the domestic front where President Samia now faces her most pressing headaches. Like in a real marriage, the romance starts to dissipate as reality bites.
When the honeymoon is over
After a few days of honeymooning, couples get back to business. Tasks that used to be fun like hiking or cooking might become more mundane than exciting. Couples may start disagreeing over certain topics large and small and might even start going through hardships.
The presidential honeymoon is more or less the same. The end of the honeymoon period often gives way to pronounced criticism, opposition, and even hostility. Here, the art of statecraft becomes a necessity. A politician will have to use his/her pragmatic instincts: listen to the partners in the political marriage and interpret the course of events before making a statement or taking any action.
Pragmatism would necessitate flexibility and compromises. Indeed, one aspect of learning to be president in a democratic polity, it would seem, is learning to deal with opponents in a “democratic” manner.
Among the leading issues of discussion in Tanzania from mid-July is the newly introduced unpopular mobile transaction levy that has been highly criticised for being too high compared to the ability of many to pay.
We have also witnessed the police clampdown on members of opposition parties whereby CHADEMA leaders were arrested in the city of Mwanza while preparing for a meeting to discuss proposals for a New Constitution. That having been said, this month has been an indication that the honeymoon period of the Samia presidency is coming to an end.
There is now an emerging gap between Samia’s spoken words and the actions of her governance machinery. Early pronouncements that inspired confidence have only remained at the rhetorical level.
A dialogue with opposition that never happened
During her inaugural address in the Twelve Parliament on April 22, 2021, President Samia stated that she would seek dialogue with opposition political parties. This is yet to happen and when members of the opposition called for a conference on constitutional changes, the president replied “chokochoko zimeanza” (annoyances have started).
This was followed by police clampdown and Freeman Mbowe, the chairperson of the main opposition party, CHADEMA, now faces terrorist-related charges. Of course, President Samia had already told the public that constitutional reform is not her top agenda. However, for reasons of effective and consensual governance, it may be prudent for the president to rethink and agree to bargain.
Otherwise, these chokochokos can be quite a distracting force that can make governance extremely difficult for her. The same wisdom and pragmatism that allowed the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) to adopt a multiparty system in the 1990s when only 15 per cent of the populace demanded it ought to be used in today’s circumstances.
An inescapable need for reconciliation
Madame President, allow me to reiterate your own conciliatory words: “This is a time to bury our differences and be one as a Nation… this is not a time to look forward with suspicion but a time to look forward with hope and confidence. It is not a time to look at the past but a time to look at the future. This is not a time for pointing fingers but a time for holding hands and moving forward.”
For many, that first speech by President Samia was very symbolic. It was a way of setting a tone for what her presidency would strive to accomplish. The discontent and factionalization that Tanzania under her predecessor faced needed Samia’s utmost attention before even starting to “fix the economy.”
We must first bury our differences and restore confidence that everybody matters, that all of us are stakeholders in Tanzania’s development. Visiting some form of retribution upon those whose lives and businesses were disrupted under the previous administration is a very dangerous and divisive political gesture.
Burying differences and holding hands should come through the exercise of choice, and not intimidation. Though it is not clear to what extent President Samia, who doubles as CCM national chairperson, is able to impose her will on the party, she has no option but to accept the responsibility of leadership.
This will no doubt involve making hard decisions as she faces what might turn out to be one of her most trying moments as the sixth president of Tanzania.
Leiyo Singo is a faculty member at the Political Science Department, University of Dar es Salaam. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth, Germany. You can reach him through his e-mail address Leiyo.Singo@uni-bayreuth.de. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.