Does Samia Suluhu Hassan have the potential to unite a polarised Tanzania and lead the country towards improved development?

Zoe Dean

The contradictory legacy of John Magufuli

For two weeks at the beginning of March 2021, Tanzania’s president John Magufuli went missing amid rumours that he was suffering from Covid-19, which government officials denied. Although this indeed wasn’t the case, Magufuli was also neither ‘healthy and working’ as the government officials also forwarded. After two weeks, on 17th March 2021, the nation received the report that Magufuli had died from a heart condition at hospital Mzena in Dar es Salaam.

He has left a complex legacy and a country divided over his contradictory leadership. His handling of the current pandemic has been deeply criticised. Not only did he downplay the severity of the virus describing it as a ‘Western Hoax’ (Aljazeera) he also critiqued mask-wearers and advised the Tanzanian public that honey lemon water would suffice to treat the disease. He has also shifted Tanzania’s foreign policy towards a more isolationist and assertive stance shunning many multilateral diplomatic engagements and only attending the AU Heads of States and Government Summit once. Yet his supporters point to his successes in the construction of numerous highways, the countries first electric rail and reviving Tanzania’s national airline, Air Tanzania. Needless to say, Magufuli’s unexpected exit has left a deeply polarised country.

Samia Suluhu Hassan – ‘Tanzania’s most underrated politician’

Samia Suluhu Hassan, affectionally known as Mama Samia, has inherited the Tanzanian presidency and its current challenges for the next 4 and a half years. Suluhu has an accomplished portfolio; she began her political career in 2000 after she was elected as a special seat member of the Zanzibar House of Representatives and appointed a minister. She was then elected as Magufuli’s running mate in 2015 which was considered a surprising choice at the time. She was elected again alongside Magufuli in last year’s controversial elections. Described as the ‘most underrated politician in Tanzania’ (BBC) she has been noted for her leadership qualities and, unlike Magafuli, as being a thoughtful and considerate communicator.

Tackling the challenges ahead – Delayed mitigation against Covid-19 harms the economy

Suluhu is already actively addressing key challenges facing the country. In terms of Covid-19 Suluhu has radically departed from Magufuli’s denialism announcing that she was forming a research committee dedicated to discerning how Tanzania should tackle the virus. Demonstrating a more open yet still independent position towards the global community she stated that ‘We cannot segregate ourselves like an island, but also we cannot blindly accept what is being brought forward to us (on COVID-19) without carrying out our investigations and inputs,” (Reuters).  This has been received positively as the country tackles the effects of a pandemic. She has also moved to re-open media which was banned under Magufuli.

Additional challenges remain however, the economy has slowed to 2% growth in 2020 with job losses in many sectors. With Magafuli’s controversial approach to the pandemic many fear that the damage has already been done and predict that the economy will continue to be impacted into 2021 and 2022. This will pose a sizeable challenge to Tanzania’s development as a whole.

What can we expect from Suluhu leadership? – To progress or to unite?

Suluhu may likely choose to focus on unifying the country rather than overtly change too many of Magufuli’s policies, at least initially. This can be seen in her already numerous appeals for unity in the country. Additionally, she is faced not only with the task of unifying a divided country but also unifying a divided government with staunch Magufuli supporters on one side, and the more traditional members on the other. It is then critical that she sures up her legitimacy in her government by unifying these two sides under her leadership. This leaves many to doubt how transformational her policies can actually be whilst mending and then maintaining unity. Yet the world is still watching to see to what extent she is willing or able to promote free media, tackle over-spending on infrastructure projects initiated by Magufuli and how she will lead Tanzania through the pandemic. It remains to seen if Suluhu will utilise her characteristic considered and thoughtful decision making to navigate the polarised legacy of her predecessor whilst unifying the government and the nation at the same time.


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Awami, S,. (29th March 2021) The complex legacy of Tanzania’s John Magufuli,

BBC (19th March 2021) Samia Suluhu Hassan – Tanzania’s new president,

Reuters, (6th April 2021) Tanzania’s new president to review COVID-19 stance, lifts media ban,

Ahearne, R,. (5th April 2021) Samia Suluhu Hassan is the only woman running a country in Africa. Her to-do list is tough,

Center for Strategic and International Studies (18th arch 2021) Will the Death of President Magufuli Bring Real Change to Tanzania?,