Tanzania faces up to future after Magufuli’s untimely death

The presidency of John Magufuli was characterised by authoritarianism and a sceptical approach to Covid-19. What can be expected from his successor?


Image : STR/AFP

Packed into Uhuru Stadium in Dar es Salaam, thousands mourned the passing of Tanzania’s fifth president. As the crowd surged to get a glimpse of the body of John Magufuli, a stampede broke out and a family of five were killed. Stretchers carried wailing Tanzanians, overcome with grief, away from the stadium. 

Tanzania’s charismatic president, who died on 17 March aged 61, is as divisive and controversial in death as he was in life. Loved by a base of mostly rural supporters who flocked to re-elect him last year, Magufuli courted controversy by a sceptical approach to Covid-19, an authoritarian leadership style and an aggressive stance towards international investors. 

In late February, the president, who appeared frequently in public, disappeared from view, whipping the international press into a frenzy of of speculation. Following confirmation of his death – which the government ascribed to a heart condition, despite widespread rumours of Covid-19 – the baton passes to former vice-president Samia Suluhu Hassan, who was sworn in as Tanzania’s first female president on 19 March. 

Many wonder what her appointment means for a country that under Magufuli developed a reputation for a strain of Covid-19 denialism at odds with the wider region. Despite not wearing a mask while being sworn in, the 61-year-old from Zanzibar is expected to break with some of Magufuli’s policies and chart a different course for Tanzania. 

“Though she will be paying lip service now by saying we will continue with what Magufuli does, it is not necessarily so,” says Ally Saleh, a Zanzibari politician and member of the opposition ACT-Wazalendo party. “She will want to position herself to be her own president.” 

Facing up to Covid

Saleh likens the potential for change to the years of development in China that followed the death of Chairman Mao. 

“It took only death for China to find a new China,” he says. 

Observers are waiting to see whether Hassan will sweep away Magufuli’s more controversial policies, with coronavirus top of the list. After months of denialism by the president, there had been an alarming increase in reports of undocumented deaths and hospital patients suffering respiratory distress since the beginning of the year. 

“The situation is very bad,” says Khalifa Said, a freelance investigative journalist based in Dar es Salaam. 

“People were dying in rapid succession in Tanzania and the deaths that were reported involved famous high people and senior citizens of this country from university professors to religious leaders.”

Among the high-profile victims was Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice-president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar, who died in February, three weeks after his party said he had contracted Covid-19. 

The third wave of Covid, which is hitting other African countries including Kenya and South Africa, was enough to finally force Magufuli to publicly accept that Covid-19 existed in Tanzania and advise citizens to wear protective equipment. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had long urged Magufuli to introduce a strategy for dealing with the disease, but it was the intervention of church leaders that ultimately prompted Magufuli’s admission, says Said. 

“He understood that if he kept denying that Covid-19 wasn’t in Tanzania then he would be pitting himself against the church leaders and that was a war that Magufuli knew he wasn’t going to win. Tanzania is a deeply religious society and religious leaders hold deeply important positions,” says Said. 

After almost a year of official neglect, Hassan is now expected to take a more active approach to Covid-19 management. A new approach may include purchasing vaccines for Tanzania and requiring travellers who enter the country to either be vaccinated or to have a negative Covid-19 certificate, Saleh says. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged the country to start reporting Covid-19 cases, share data, implement public measures and prepare for vaccination.

Tanzania’s opposition parties are also hoping that Hassan will divert Tanzania away from its recent authoritarian trajectory. During Magufuli’s tenure opposition parties suffered many restrictions, politicians were beaten and arrested, and the press was muzzled. The election in which Magufuli won 84% of the vote last year was dogged by reports of irregularities. 

“You don’t see her [Hassan] being iron handed, you can be sure there will be no more iron fist,” predicts Saleh. 

While freedom of speech was curtailed under Magufuli, critics are now beginning to cautiously test the waters to gauge the new situation.

New Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan inspects a military parade following her swearing-in as the country’s first female president after the sudden death of President John Magufuli. Photo: AFP.

New president, new style

Prior to her new role, Hassan was considered an underrated player in government due to a calm demeanour and a string of important but relatively low profile roles. As vice-president in Magufuli’s cabinet she largely played a ceremonial role.

She began her political career in Zanzibar in 2000 as a special seat member to the Zanzibar House of Representatives and later served as minister of state for union affairs under President Jakaya Kikwete. In 2014, she made a name for herself as the vice-chair of the Constituent Assembly, which was created to draft a new constitution.

Contrary to the combative and blunt Magufuli, she is thought to favour consensus building. Though she was loyal to her former boss, Hassan has also shown that she can chart her own course. 

In 2017, she was one of the only party members to visit opposition leader Tundu Lissu in a Nairobi hospital after he was shot 16 times while waiting outside Tanzania’s parliament in Dodoma. 

While Tanzanians wait for official policy decisions, her initial speeches have shown a mix of praise for her predecessor mixed with the occasional remark suggesting a keeness to allay the concerns of regional and international partners.

“Thank God for being lucky enough to be led by the late Magufuli. We will also reflect on the good guidance and vision he had for our nation and which would give us the motivation to work together to build our Tanzania that we all need,” she said during the national farewell ceremony in Dodoma. 

“Tanzania will continue to be a good neighbour and a good partner in regional and international co-operation. Our relationship will continue to be safer and stronger under my leadership.” 

Party management 

But a big question is whether Hassan can get enough of a grip on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party to make things happen. 

“She was picked by the CCM top brass, but that doesn’t mean she has control of the party,” says Saleh. “She was not a member of the executive committee; she was not a member of the central committee and it takes time to get a grip on the government.”

Just how she will enforce her will remains to be seen. Success during Magufuli’s tenure was largely linked to personal loyalty to the president, but the Tanganyika Law Society has argued that Hassan is constitutionally bound to reshuffle the cabinet. The new president may be encouraged by the fact that Magufuli’s policies didn’t necessarily have the broad support of the party, and therefore any diversion may not be met with hostility. 

In fact, investigative journalist Said argues that most CCM politicians remained quiet during Magufuli’s regime because of the president’s access to compromising information about them. 

“Soon after becoming president of Tanzania and the ruling party he formed a committee to investigate properties of the ruling party. The reports details corruption that involved high-profile CCM leaders during the Kikwete era going back to [former President] Benjamin Mkapa. The report was not released to the public and it contained bombshell information about politicians. No one in the CCM was willing to risk their life and career by contradicting Magufuli.”

Business hopes

International observers and investors are hoping that Tanzania will mend ties with the international community and begin to pursue less isolationist policies. 

“If it were a stock market, the prices went up when Suluhu came in. The mere change of Magufuli was a relief to the market and relief to the donors,” says Saleh.

On the economy, Magufuli was lauded by his supporters for putting Tanzanian interests ahead of large foreign companies, but disliked by some for cracking down on the private sector and obstructing the free market. He pursued a combative approach to international business, particularly foreign mining firms which he insisted were not paying their dues

In 2017, Acacia Mining, Tanzania’s largest gold-miner, was slapped with a $190bn retrospective tax bill for failing to pay royalties on alleged undeclared exports. In January 2020, Canada’s Barrick Gold – which gained full control of Acacia Mining in 2019 – agreed to settle the dispute by paying the Tanzanian government $300m and ceding 16% ownership of its three mines in the country.

He also overturned two agreements with China negotiated by his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete including a $10bn port development, arguing that they were bad deals for Tanzania. While the aggressive approach stunted investment in key sectors and projects, Tanzanians applauded Magufuli’s uncompromising attitude. 

He also cultivated support among Tanzanian businesses who favoured his encouragement of local manufacturing and processing and would like to see a continuation of his policies. 

“We are really hopeful for the future of Tanzania and the new president,” says Fahad Awadh, co-founder of YYTZ Agro-Processing, which processes up to 2,500 tonnes of raw cashew per year from a factory in Zanzibar.

“We are looking forward to continuing some of his policies we have seen in terms of local processing, local value addition and just as a whole the commitment to improving the business environment.”

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