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There Are More Similarities Between Samia and Merkel Than There Could Ever Be With Machiavelli

I expected changes but not constitutional ones under Samia. Three things influenced my thinking: how she got to power, the situation on the ground and the danger of referendums.

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Analysing the latest political developments in Tanzania, my friend Richard Mbunda asked in a recent article on this website if President Samia Suluhu Hassan has been reading Nicolo Machiavelli’s 1532 treatise, The Prince, or a Machiavelli disciple is operating in the shadow to influence her.

Well, just to be sure, I asked around to know what the President has been reading recently. My sources have indicated that the book that Samia has been coming back to quite often is the biography of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, written by Kati Marton, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, published in October 2021, just seven months after Samia came to power. 

The major difference between Machiavelli’s book of more than 500 years ago and Marton’s is that the former is about somebody who has never been a leader, while the latter is about a leader in recent times.

For those who have not read the book or followed Merkel’s life, there are a lot of similarities between Merkel and Samia. One is that both are the first women to lead their respective countries. Samia came from Zanzibar – one part of the United Republic of Tanzania, and Merkel came from East Germany – which was once a different country from West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I can’t say Samia has not read Machiavelli. There is no way that somebody can become a president of any country – or has ambitions to be so– and not have applied or have in their armour some of the propositions that the Italian philosopher put forward then. But I think in this case, Merkel makes sense in Samia’s case more than Machiavelli.

READ MORE: Samia Shouldn’t Risk Her Reformist Agenda By Listening to Her Machiavellian Advisors

Merkel is considered one of the best world leaders in the last 50 years. The numbers back the argument – from how she transformed the German economy, her compassion for refugees, how she stood her ground against dictators and populist leaders and made the world a better place for all.

But she was known to take a long time to make big decisions. In 2015, the word Merkel was among the German words of the year. In English, the word meant “to do nothing.” But after taking some time on the issue, she will eventually make a better decision.

In his analysis, Dr Mbunda used the recently passed key electoral bills as a reference point in his conclusion that President Samia might be under some Machiavellian influence. Mbunda, for one, thinks that passing the bills in the parliament indicates that Samia renegades on her 4R’s agenda. 

“Most of the contestations that called for legal reform are rooted in the Constitution, which is a mother law,” Dr Mbunda points out in his article. “Ironically, there was nothing to do with the amendment of the Constitution.”

I did not expect Samia to make constitutional changes in her first term in office. I expected changes but not constitutional ones. Three things influenced my thinking: how she got to power, the situation on the ground and the danger of referendums.

How she got to power

Samia came to power following the death of a populist leader, John Magufuli. The best thing to do for her was to become both a continuity and change leader. Moving further from the previous leader would alienate the group close to him, and some little changes would at least keep the other group confident.

READ MORE: Passed Electoral Bills Give No Hope for Wider Women’s Participation in Leadership in Tanzania

A bulk of the reading indicates the danger of making too many changes after the demise of a divisive leader. I am always informed by the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that the French Revolution of the 1780s was partly because the new King wanted to change the situation too much.

In Tocquiville’s words, the most dangerous time for a leader and a country is when the new incumbent tries to make too many changes. According to him, that was the mistake of France’s ruling elite in the 1780s.

If Samia wanted, she could have kept the status quo and made no changes. The changes we see today, maybe small and insignificant, say something about her attempts to do something. After 2025, when – as expected –she wins the election and has her mandate to rule, I expect she will make some big changes, including constitutional ones.

The situation on the ground

In 2021, Tanzania and the world were still reeling from the effects of COVID-19. Our tourism sector was on its knees, our exports were in bad shape, and our relationship with investors suffered following bad decisions made by her predecessors.

Our country needs a New Constitution, but in 2021, if we were to ask for priorities from our people, the changes would not be on their agendas. President Jakaya Kikwete decided on the constitutional reforms in his second term based on ten years of uninterrupted economic growth, peace and fantastic relationships with investors and the international community.

READ MORE: Electoral Bills Review: Genuine Commitment for Transitional Justice in Tanzania?

The way Samia saw it, like Merkel and not Machiavelli, was that resurrecting the tourism sector, fighting COVID-19, and revitalising the economy through increasing investors’ confidence and continuous investment in big projects like Mwalimu Nyerere Hydro Power Project and the SGR was more important than other things.

The danger of referendums

In 2021, Tanzania was a divided country. Some prominent opposition members fled the country to save their lives, while those who stayed faced difficulties. The division between those who supported Samia’s predecessor and those who hated him was big. I think holding a referendum at that particular time was dangerous.

The referendum on changing the constitution could have easily turned into a battle between those whose human and political rights were limited during the reign of Samia’s predecessor and his supporters. At the moment, it is difficult to know where that would have taken our country. 

But, under the circumstances, it would have been dangerous to have those debates and a referendum during her first term in office.

Machiavelli was great, but he would struggle to understand today’s challenges. He did not live long enough to witness the European Union and today’s world order entrenched in nationalities and not principalities during his time.

READ MORE: Analysts Fear Samia’s Election Fever May Prolong Tanzania’s Reformist Agenda

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameroon realised late that the Brexit referendum was not about what was on his mind but something else to his opponent. Constitutional changes in 2022 or 2023 would have turned out ugly because of what happened in the five years before Samia came to power.

Where are we?

I understand that Samia could have been bolder and made more changes than she has. I also understand that her ‘Merkeln’ sometimes comes at the detriment of even her fervent supporters. But, if someone asks me today if we have made progress since 2021, my answer would be yes.

I used to visit Segerea Prisons every week to see some friends who were incarcerated there. I have not been to the prison premises for over a year now. I also meet and interact with friends living abroad because of fear but have returned.

I am reading newspapers that were previously banned. I am attending some public rallies by opposition parties banned before Samia came to power. I go to restaurants and have my coffee without looking behind me to see who is watching. And I am seeing the number of investors coming to invest in Tanzania increasing.

I am optimistic that we will see constitutional changes under her presidency. If it will come later, it is because of her inner Merkeln, not a Machiavellian streak in her.

Ezekiel Kamwaga is the Managing Editor of a Swahili online publication, Gazeti la Dunia. He is available at or on X as @ezekiel_kamwaga. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at  

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