Tanzania did East Africa, and Africa in general, proud on March 18, when President – then Vice-President – Samia Suluhu Hassan announced the death of President John Pombe Magufuli and started the process of taking over the reins of power, culminating in her swearing-in and assumption of office to become one of the most powerful women on the continent.
Presidential transitions are tricky, especially when the Head of State dies in office. The risk of informal power groups messing up in an attempt to illegally take power “for the sake of the country” is high, as we saw in Malawi after the death of then-President Mutharika. Now that she is firmly in the saddle of power, President Hassan has a fantastic opportunity to leave her mark in this world and to blaze the trail for women in the region.
However, there are things she should, and should not, do if she wishes to carry a favourable verdict from history. Leaders do not leave a mark by copying the thoughts and decisions of others; they do so by bringing their individuality and uniqueness to government. I think she should make a clean break with the past and claim her own space.
Dr Magufuli, in my opinion, was not a good leader and his government was far from the best. In any case, his personal philosophy of government, some kind of populist nationalism and showmanship that I think of as “mekoism”, is not a good approach to government. It plays to the gallery and pleases the crowd but does not feed a nation.
President Hassan should, implacably, punish crime, including political ones. She should order an investigation into alleged violations of human rights, including attempted murder of opposition leaders, killings and the unexplained disappearance of citizens such as journalist Azory Gwanda four years ago. She should also ruthlessly go after those power groups alleged to have looted public funds through graft and theft. Not to punish crime opens the door to impunity and there is no cancer worse than that, as Kenyans well know.
Freedom is not a luxury; it is as necessary as the air we breathe. No African should live in bondage, enslaved by their own leaders, unable to speak their mind or freely pursue their lives. Freedom is not a gift given by a leader, political party or government. Freedom is God-given and President Hassan should ensure that her fellow citizens can go about their business – including reporting and receiving information - without fear of government.
Romantic poverty and sharing
The President should also change the way the country feels about foreigners. In my opinion, foreigners are like bees in a field of flowers. They might taste your nectar but in their well-travelled legs will be lots of pollen to fertilize your flowers. Foreigners come with capital, ideals and attitudes which can make Tanzanians wealthy, or wealthier, and few countries can get by without them. Related to this is the fact that Tanzania needs to make friends with international business and her neighbours.
The Tanzania of today is not the Bongo of 1975, an agrarian Socialist Utopia where the people live in romantic poverty and sharing. Today, it is a modern nation of growing influence and wealth with an expanding capitalist class and interests beyond its borders. The fiction that you can grow your exports by locking out imports and mistreating international business is one among many fairy tales former President Magufuli appeared to believe.
But the one clear difference that people around the continent expect to see between the former president and the current is how well the latter takes care of the people. It is one thing to say you love the country and its people, it is another to actually love and take care of the people. A leader who will let the people suffer rather than change his (misguided) policies can sing that he loves his country until the cows come back home but, in actual fact, he cares more about his ego.
Covid-19 is a dangerous disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of people across the world. No country is immune to it; it knows no borders. It is the responsibility of every government to protect its people against it.
I think optics matter. A leader should care about not creating the wrong impression. I think even when they are certain that they are not doing the wrong thing, leaders should make an effort to dispel any notions, however misplaced, of impropriety. Relatives in government is not always a good thing and need to be managed with great care – unless you are Donald Trump and for you anything goes.
But the most important thing that President Hassan should do is to hold the ladder from the top to women leaders in Tanzania and the region. She should promote and encourage women to seek power unashamedly. She should reach out and cultivate strong, outspoken women leaders and set them against the patriarchy that is East African politics. She has a fantastic opportunity to define Tanzanian and regional politics. She should not waste it on the failed policies of a previous government.