Tanzania: Domestic Policy and Regional Dynamics under President Suluhu

As she settles into her role, Tanzania’s new President Samia Suluhu Hassan will need to walk the fine line of distinguishing herself from her predecessor without inflaming an already tense and fractious political situation at home. Suluhu will continue former President John Magufuli’s popular anti-corruption drive, but whether or not she will use it to eliminate potential political rivals to help consolidate her hold on power remains to be seen. Suluhu will likely adopt at least some internationally supported measures to control the spread of COVID-19 and may be open to greater regional cooperation on vaccine procurement and distribution. She will likely avoid the authoritarian trajectory of Magufuli and his inclination to personalize power. However, it remains less clear if she will seek to chart her own path as Tanzania’s new leader or gravitate back to the status quo of the ruling party’s machine politics. Either way, Suluhu’s ascension bodes well for regional cooperation and Tanzania’s bilateral relations with its neighbors. It also signals a partial rapprochement between Tanzania and the international business and donor communities.

Current Situation

On March 17, 2021, Tanzania announced that then President John Pombe Magufuli died from heart complications. The government continues to deny allegations from the opposition that Magufuli, aged 61, died of COVID-19. Two days later, then Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn in as the new President of Tanzania in accordance with the constitutionally-established succession process. She will serve out the remainder of Magufuli’s second five-year term, which began in October 2020. Suluhu steadily rose within Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), Tanzania’s ruling party, before she was selected as Magufuli’s running mate in 2015. As Suluhu enters her new role as Tanzania’s first female president, there are many questions regarding her policy positions and their implications for the region as well as her ability to maintain control over CCM.

Anti-Corruption Drive

Suluhu will very likely continue Magufuli’s high-profile anti-corruption drive, which was very popular among the CCM’s rural support base. During his tenure, the former president sought to lower wasteful spending among the country’s public officials and dismissed many senior officials suspected of corrupt activity. Although his push to reduce corruption in Tanzania initially delighted Western donors, their perceptions soon soured as Magufuli’s authoritarian tendencies revealed themselves. Less than two weeks into her administration, Suluhu suspended the head of the Tanzania Ports Authority over corruption allegations and directed the government to audit funds dispersed to various development projects this year. However, what remains to be seen is whether Suluhu will leverage the anti-corruption drive to eliminate political rivals both within the CCM itself as well as the country’s opposition.

COVID-19 Response

Since taking office, Suluhu has taken a variety of steps indicating a deviation from her predecessor’s COVID-19 policies. She has removed the head of the health ministry, a COVID-19 skeptic, and released science-based COVID-19 guidelines that encourage mask wearing. Suluhu has also appointed epidemiological experts as advisors. Magufuli’s administration was infamous for its response to COVID-19, which consisted of a mixture of denial and promotion of debunked treatment methods. The strong support among religious conservatives in Tanzania for the former president’s strategy coupled with the limited testing and treatment capacity and low public awareness caused by Magufuli’s response present Suluhu with bleak prospects for controlling the virus.

However, there may be an opportunity for renewed cooperation regarding the region’s COVID-19 response. Without Magufuli and former Burundian President Nkurunziza (another COVID-19 skeptic), the EAC’s member states may be able to collaborate on vaccine procurement and coordinate vaccine distribution in the region.

Relations with EAC Member States

In stark contrast to her inward-looking predecessor, Suluhu’s leadership is seen as a “boon to integration and diplomacy” in the region. As Vice-President, Suluhu appeared in Magufuli’s stead at key meetings and events at the United Nations, African Union, Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and East African Community (EAC). She received a warm reception to her new office from members of both the SADC and the EAC, with Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi assuring her of regional support and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta doing the same. In one of her first speeches as president, Suluhu said she saw regional cooperation as essential for fast-tracking economic development.

Thus far, her actions appear to be consistent with that belief. She appointed veteran diplomat Liberata Mulamula as the new Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Mulamula previously served as permanent secretary (non-political service head) of the ministry she now heads. She also spent time as Tanzania’s ambassador to the US, High Commissioner to Canada, and as the first executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. 

Suluhu’s Governance Style

Suluhu’s reputation as a consensus builder and her first actions as president indicate that she will almost certainly not continue on Magufuli’s perceived authoritarian trajectory. She had ordered for current bans on some media outlets to be lifted, admonishing government officials that they “must not ban just because [they] have the power to do so.” If a loosening of media restrictions does indeed take place, Suluhu would have taken a major step to repair strained relations with the donor community. Suluhu also urged her government ministries to work to restore investor confidence in Tanzania – particularly with regard to reducing bureaucratic hurdles to entry. This rhetoric stands in contrast to her predecessor’s “combative approach” to interacting with the international business community.

It remains much less clear whether Suluhu’s presidency will involve a return to the typical politics of the CCM or if she will attempt to chart her own path. The party has been in power since Tanzania’s 1961 independence. However, since the 1980s, the power distribution within CCM shifted from highly centralized and controlled to a decentralized and “fractious” amalgamation of patron-client networks. When Magufuli rose to power in 2015, he sought to recentralize control within the CCM and limit the influence of sub-factions. Now, Suluhu is caught between the fractured ‘old guard’ of the CCM and loyal Magufuli supporters (as well as the more liberal urban population). Given the fractured state of Tanzania’s domestic politics, Suluhu’s policies will likely be designed to foster unity and soothe tensions rather than achieve any major systemic change.

Joseph Hartung is a Researcher at the HORN Institute

Photo: President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania inspects a guard of honor by the Tanzania Peoples Defense Forces after on March 19, 2021 (Photo Credit: Stringer/Reuters)

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