President Samia’s Honeymoon is Over, But Has the Demand for Change Just Began?

If President Samia fails to deliver on improving the economy and frustration grows in the country, the opposition will be looking to use that to its advantage. 

The most excruciating experience for a football fan is when your team is trailing 1-0 away from home, and only needs to level the score to advance to the next stage. Stakes are high in this nail-biter. Then at the 90th minute, your most trusted player and skipper of the team gets the ball just outside the 18-yard box. He bamboozles two defenders and in a blink of an eye, he is on a one-on-one with the goalkeeper. At this moment, you already rose from your seat in anticipation of the inevitable. The player then cleverly chips the ball over the onrushing goalie, but instead of hitting the back of the nets, it hits the crossbar on its way out. Head in hands, you drop down to your seat in distress. 

This is what some Tanzanians will feel when they take a stock of their initial vested hope in the new leadership in the country. 

The new leader is President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the first female president of the United Republic. For some reason, I believe cultural, local media usually refer to her as President Samia, and not President Hassan. This is a conversation for another day. I will stick with President Samia, mainly because she has not objected to its usage. 

When President John Pombe Magufuli died on March 17, 2021, there was hope in addition to grief. Such was the level of polarization in the country. The hope emanated from Magufuli’s five years of authoritarianism, sometimes euphemized as bulldozing. Magufuli was nicknamed the bulldozer for his aggressive style, but also for his long stint as a minister in the ministry of works. A hugely polarizing figure, he bulldozed the opposition, muzzled his critics and rallied a good section of a downtrodden populace behind what appeared to be his vision of Making Tanzania Great Again

The result was catastrophic, particularly in the civil and political rights aspect. The civic space shrunk considerably with the media, civil society and academia all whipped into submission as he indiscriminately used state apparatuses to flex his muscle. With their backs firmly against the wall, few in the opposition resisted. Nonetheless, the number of those resigning and taking up their place on the political death row was ever-growing. Others defected and joined the ruling Chama cha Mapinparty under questionable circumstances. 

Yet, Magufuli supporters saw in him a no-nonsense reformer, a great patriot and an efficient doer. In their eyes, he was the people’s president. In a short period, he had embarked on ambitious national projects such as the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the Nyerere hydropower station which is expected to produce around 2,000 Megawatts and reviving the national airline. He also took on the mining multinationals, eventually passing a law to protect Tanzania’s natural resources and wealth (Permanent Sovereignty Act). The economics of these projects and measures is debatable, and part of his legacy is that few dared question their feasibility. His anti-imperialist rhetoric made many to mistake him for a devoted Pan-Africanist, earning him popular approval. In the context of electoral politics, this popularity was a political capital not to be ignored by his party CCM on the one hand and the incoming leader on the other. 

Turning the tide of Magufulism

It was clear from the time of Magufuli’s death that while others expected the incoming leader to turn the tide of Magufulism, others expected its continuation. Aware of this tricky situation, President Samia first appeared to navigate the political divide by attempting to introduce her new agenda while at the same leveraging on the party’s political capital grossed by Magufuli by selectively upholding his policies. Her slogan Kazi Iendelee (let the work continue) was carefully crafted not to contradict Magufuli’s own Hapa Kazi Tu (nothing but work), as an assurance to Magufulisters that she is only here to pick up the baton and finish the race. After all, she was his Vice President. This assurance of continuity appears to be as President Samia’s short-term strategy to gain a grip on the party where she lacks base.     

The first three months of her presidency looked quite promising and the euphoria was palpable. The ‘accidental president’ seemed to be winning the support of both camps, as well as those in between. Football analogists deliberated and agreed that, ‘Mama anaupiga mwingi’ – crudely meaning that the president was stealing the show with a series of stellar exploits comparable only to that of a gifted footballer – was the fitting description of her early performance. The president is affectionately known as Mama, an identity she embraces graciously. Even perennial government critics and opposition politicians had nice things to say about the new leader. One of them described her first 100 days in office as Days of Uhuru! 

Despite President Samia’s repeated words that she and Magufuli were cut from the same cloth, there were conspicuous points of departure from her predecessor. The hectic years of Magufuli meant that one of her main tasks was to restore sanity where it clearly lacked. Indeed, for others, that was all they could ask for. And sanity was restored by, for example, reversing the government’s COVID-19 approach of tiptoeing around the pandemic. Today, wearing face masks is no longer a political statement whereas the mere mentioning of coronavirus is not taboo anymore. 

The government has also secured one million Janssen doses of vaccine to kickstart its vaccination campaign. More doses are on the way.  Also, President Samia’s reconciliatory tone sent a message that the nation was crossing the Rubicon of inclusive politics. She spoke about human rights and democracy unlike her predecessor who would only do so in the context of rejecting their universal application. 

Although she did not change the law, Samia instructed that suspension imposed on some media outlets be lifted. She lamented about tramp-up charges against innocent civilians, done by the country’s security organs. She struck the chord of those who had given up on the reforms of the repressive justice system. 

For three months into her presidency, the opposition was allowed to meet and organize, at least internally. The usually paranoid police had uncharacteristically kept their hands off the opposition this time around. Today, those who took this as a sign that indeed a new day has come cannot be very proud of their political (mis)calculations. 

President Samia looked determined to change the direction of her country when she appointed Liberata Mulamula, a seasoned career diplomat, to lead the foreign affairs ministry. In what was perceived as rebranding the country, Mulamula replaced Palamagamba Kabudi whose combative style and rhetoric mirrored the approach of the Magufuli administration. 

Mulamula was given her job description almost immediately after her appointment: to amend Tanzania’s relationship with the world. The overstated language of standing up against mabeberu (imperialists) which regained currency during Magufuli’s presidency appears to have been lost in this transition. Notably, President Samia announced that her government is restarting talks with a Chinese investor over the construction of Bagamoyo port. The project was shelved by Magufuli who stated that only a mad person would accept its terms. 

A dramatic turn of events

Just when people were asking if President Samia was making a clean break from her predecessor, a dramatic turn of events has changed the conversation. It happened when the president was speaking to the media fraternity at an event to mark the first 100 days in office. Aware of the opposition’s rekindled campaign for a new constitution, the president appealed that she is first given time to build the crumbling economy. 

How much time she needed was an open-ended question, much to the disappointment of New Constitution enthusiasts. To rub salt on the wound, the president signaled that the illegal ban on political rallies instituted by the Magufuli administration would continue. The least thing the opposition and pretty much every well-wishing citizen expected from the new leader was to lift the ban, but even that was not to be given.  

At this point, the opposition knew they had to go to work, so they upped the ante. A nationwide campaign for the new constitution was launched by CHADEMA, the main opposition in Tanzania Mainland. Since then, the response by authorities has been nothing short of ruthless. Tens of CHADEMA members are or have been in police cells, others held beyond the lawful police detention time.

Freeman Mbowe, CHADEMA’s national chairperson was arrested on the morning of July 21, the day he was scheduled to preside over a conference to push for the new constitution. He now faces terrorism charges. Images of heavily armed police arresting and assaulting people who appear to be CHADEMA members outside the court have since circulated widely as the demand for a new constitution is now weaponized. These are the ugly images and stories many believed the new president needed to do away with. They will be disappointed.   

When Magufuli banned political rallies after he came into power, many thought it would be temporary. But the ban was sustained throughout his entire tenure. The wisdom was that ‘politics’ should stop after elections! People should, we were lectured, focus on building the nation instead. This newly-found democracy, Tanzanian style, is unconstitutional but President Samia seems determined to honour it. During a recent interview with the BBC, she equated political rallies and demonstrations to chaos, although the constitution and the laws of the land have provisions for such. It looks like Tanzanians are in for a long haul in their quest to defend the current constitution, let alone demand a new one. 

The bar of suppressing the opposition has been set very high

Unfortunately, the bar of suppressing the opposition has been set very high, so much that any attempt to bring things to normalcy will be seen by ruling party hardliners as an unnecessary concession. This could explain the fact the president is yet to meet the opposition despite promising to do so soon after taking the oath. She has already met women, youth, religious, and elderly groups. 

The seemingly internal pushback was recently on display when two-party cadres came forward to publicly contradict President Samia’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. In addition, the party’s own newspaper, Uhuru, ran a headline quoting President Samia as saying she would not run for office in the 2025 election. This kind of (mis)behavior would be unthinkable during Magufuli’s chairmanship. Although the party has quickly moved to address both incidents by issuing a stern warning against the two anti-vaxxers and suspending its own newspaper for seven days, signs are that President Samia’s grip on the party will be tested. 

Outside the party, President Samia faces another test: a rejuvenated opposition. The opposition has seen the worst during Magufuli’s presidency and it has shown the incredible tenacity and stamina required to survive in the most precarious situations. Also, there is a shared belief that things cannot get any worse, not even terrorism charges slapped on Freeman Mbowe. 

At the moment, the demand for the New Constitution appears to be the starting point. However, if the president fails to deliver on improving the economy and frustration grows, the opposition will be looking to use that to its advantage. The opposition may also be strengthened by the disgruntled Magufulisters who see President Samia’s policies to be the antithesis of their adored fallen hero. The pressure will mount. 

Rebranding Tanzania

At the same time, President Samia seems so keen to rebrand Tanzania.  On June 26, 2021, she urged senior government officials to prepare to receive major international media corporations who, according to her, have been impressed by recent developments in Tanzania, including having a female president. The purpose of this visitation is thus to promote Tanzania in the world. 

President Samia’s background as an activist in the NGO sector means that she is well versed in the language of internationalism and multilateralism. Unlike Magufuli, she is much more worldly. A possibility exists that President Samia’s policies are going to be affected by how she is perceived by the international community and her attempt to abide by international norms. 

By international community, I broadly mean the West and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the Brettonwoods institutions. This does not mean President Samia will be compelled to make drastic changes, but just enough to win their confidence in going about their usual business. There is a caveat to this though: Tanzanians cannot solely rely on external actors to bring about change in their own country. 

In fact, during Magufuli’s authoritarianism, the Western donor community in Tanzania was even accused of propping up the regime. The experience of Magufuli’s presidency taught us that the so-called international community has very little, if any, influence on the direction of government policies. But that was partly because Magufuli did not care what the outside world thought of him. 

But President Samia appears to care. 

Dr Muhidin Shangwe is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). His research area is on China-Africa relations. He can be reached at shangwebj@gmail.com or at @ShangweliBeria. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. You can also have your opinion published on our platform. Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

Dr. Muhidin Shangwe

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