Tanzania’s First Female President Has Inherited a Covid Mess

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Of the many challenges Samia Suluhu Hassan inherited upon being sworn in as president of Tanzania last week, none is more urgent than repairing the damage caused by her predecessor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Her first task: figuring out what to do about the minister responsible for the country’s eccentric health policies.

Although President John Magufuli is dead, his cavalier attitude toward the virus is embodied by his Health Minister Dorothy Gwajima. While her boss invoked divine providence as protection against Covid-19, Gwajima extolled the prophylactic qualities of vegetable smoothies, some of which she whipped up in a blender at a bizarre press conference. She also announced that Tanzania had no need for vaccines, even as her peers elsewhere in Africa scrambled for them.

There are currently no reliable Covid stats for the country; the government stopped releasing data in May, when the death toll was 21. There is very little testing, so most people who contract the pathogen don’t know they have it. This ignorance is allowing the virus to spread quickly. Funeral announcements on Dar es Salaam’s Radio One have recently been running to 30 minutes, sharply up from the normal duration of 5-10 minutes. Opposition politicians say the situation has reached crisis proportions.

President Hassan has not yet said what she intends to do about the pandemic. Those inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt say her silence is sensible: After all, her former boss was a genuinely popular leader — even if his massive election victory last fall was attended by suspicions of voting fraud. Swiftly disavowing his policies could be politically perilous. (In addition to being the first woman serving as Tanzania’s president, she is currently Africa’s only woman head of government; Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde has a ceremonial role as head of state.)

But if Hassan is to be judged by what she does rather than what she says, Gwajima’s longevity in office will be a gauge of the president’s seriousness in dealing with the pandemic. Even with a new health minister, Tanzania will struggle to make up for the time lost in the race for vaccines. Yet without a change, the country risks prolonging its exposure to the virus and further delaying its economic recovery.

Much will depend on the new president’s ability to make the most of what appears to be a weak political hand. 

Hassan is the first president born in the Zanzibar archipelago, which has always been a political outlier, its population of fewer than 2 million dwarfed by the mainland’s 56 million. Although she has risen steadily up the hierarchy of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, she has no powerful political constituency. She wasn’t Magufuli’s first choice as running mate in 2015: He wanted defense minister Hussein Mwinyi, the son of a former president, but was persuaded by the party elders to pick a woman instead.

Although she remained on the ticket in 2020, Hassan was never a key member of Magufuli’s kitchen cabinet, where foreign minister Palamagamba Kabudi and transport minister Isack Kamwelwe were regarded as power players. When the president fell ill in late February and vanished from sight, rumors swirled in Dar es Salaam that he had contracted terminal Covid-19, and that his favorites were jockeying to replace him.

But Hassan once again emerged as a compromise candidate and was sworn in two days after Magufuli’s death. When she said in her inaugural speech that she “was not prepared for this,” she was not necessarily being self-effacing. 

Technically, she has the opportunity to serve out the rest of Magufuli’s term, until 2025. The CCM completely dominates Tanzania’s political landscape, so she needn’t fear any challenges from the opposition. Indeed, as the only senior politician to visit opposition leader Tundu Lissu in the hospital in 2017, after he was shot 16 times in an assassination attempt, Hassan may even get a break from that quarter. But she should be wary of power brokers within her own party, who are now vying to be her vice president.

Crucially, she will need to impose herself on the CCM: By convention, the president is automatically the party’s chairperson. She might also be able to appoint an ally to the currently vacant position of secretary general. But even so, she will require the cooperation of the grandees who rose up the chain of command thanks to Magufuli and who regard her as a weakling from the boondocks.

Beyond the pandemic and party politics, Hassan can be expected to persist with Magufuli’s signature economic policies, including mega-projects like the $3.5 billion crude oil pipeline from Uganda to Tanzania’s coast led by Total SE and a $30 billion liquefied natural gas development. Of special interest to foreign investors will be her attitude to investment policies designed to boost local ownership and mining reforms that allow the government to renegotiate terms with minerals and energy companies.

That would be a pretty full plate for a leader at any time. But as elsewhere in Africa, the pandemic sits at the top of the pile, and what Hassan does about Gwajima will set the tone for her presidency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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