Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan,4 January: Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan at a meeting with cabinet ministers and government officials at State House in Dar es Salaam. [photo: Alamy]

The vice-presidency of a country can be a paradoxically obscure position, often filled by non-entities. Before he became the second president of the US, John Adams was George Washington’s deputy, and was so unimpressed with the job that he called it the ‘most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived’. Franklin Roosevelt’s VP, John Nance Garner, had an even lower opinion of the role, saying it ‘was not worth a bucket of warm piss’.

Tanzania’s first vice-president to become head of state, Samia Suluhu Hassan, 62, has overturned this idea, using her years as VP to hone her political skills and raise her profile. Once regarded as a minor player and ‘naive outsider’ (though one MP who worked with her then said she was ‘the most underrated politician in Tanzania’), in the year since she was catapulted into the State House by the sudden death of her predecessor John Magufuli, ‘Mama Samia’ has quietly reshaped the country. She has managed to do this despite being the beneficiary of elections regarded as neither free nor fair.

Africa’s only female executive president had much to do in re-establishing the country’s reputation; after making a promising start to his presidency by combating corruption, Magufuli had become increasingly autocratic, illiberal and erratic. Suluhu’s elevation to the top job probably only came about because Magufuli had rejected vaccines to fight Covid-19, preferring to put his faith in herbal steam and faith itself. He is widely thought to have died from the virus.

She promptly reversed his denialism, appointing a commission on how best to catch up with the rest of the world in fighting the pandemic, launching a vaccination campaign and leading the way in getting a jab when the country received 1m doses a few months later. Suluhu has moved so far from Magufuli’s position on Covid-19 that she has spoken about opening a plant to manufacture the vaccine.

Faced with a ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party riddled by factionalism, she called for unity in her maiden speech, saying: ‘This is the time to stand together and get connected. It’s time to bury our differences.’ She had practised this while vice-president, overturning expectations by visiting the opposition leader Tundu Lissu in hospital after an assassination attempt blamed on state forces.

Expectations were low when Suluhu took office, because she was a woman, Muslim, a former office clerk, from Zanzibar, and had few backers in CCM. ‘I think she will struggle to build her own base,’ said Thabit Jacob, an expert on Tanzania at Denmark’s Roskilde University, told Al Jazeera. ‘We shouldn’t expect major changes.’

However, this prediction was quickly proved wrong as she moved to reverse Magufuli’s much-criticised ban on pregnant girls continuing their education; acknowledged how far workers’ pay had fallen and promised to raise wages; re-established diplomatic links neglected by the isolationist foreign policy of Magufuli (Tanzania was elected vice-president of the UN General Assembly for the first time in 30 years) and ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, making Tanzania part of a pact connecting countries with a total GDP of $3.4tn.

Suluhu’s attention to Tanzania’s economy has paid dividends – she attracted 92 new investment projects, worth $3.5bn, in her first months in office, compared with about $300m during the same period in 2020. Last April, she finalised an agreement with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on the 1,440-km East African oil pipeline, which is expected to boost both countries’ economies, though it has been fiercely opposed by environmentalists.

She has also been praised for promoting women to senior roles in a political system that has long marginalised female policymakers. Nine out of 25 ministries are now headed by women, including Stergomena Tax in the hugely symbolic defence portfolio. She has also named women as the speaker of parliament, ambassador to the US, and as 13 of 28 new judges.

Her efforts to improve women’s representation have generally been lauded but even some other women fear she may be going too fast. ‘I’d be concerned if she tried to drive for parity immediately because we need time as a society to get used to certain things,’ the commentator ​and feminist blogger Elsie Eyakuze told Deutsche Welle. ‘If she’s seen to favo​u​r women absolutely and completely and be a feminist, that might actually arouse a backlash instead of creating a constructive situation.​’

While that criticism was muted, there was a ferocious reaction to the president’s comments on women’s football, when she was condemned for the sexism of her descri​ption of Tanzania’s female players as having ‘flat chests​’ and being unattractive for marriage. Catherine Ruge, a former MP of the main opposition Chadema Party, called it ‘a humiliation to all women’. Mwanahamisi Singano​, a women’s rights activist​, told DW: ‘African women​ [have] been objectified for so long. It is really sad to hear that the president is uttering those words.​’​

One of the biggest criticisms of her presidency has been that she was continuing Magufuli’s policy of harassing and arbitrarily detaining opposition figures, journalists and other critics on little evidence, even though she spoke of a new chapter on taking office. In August even the CCM’s own newspaper, Uhuru, was banned for running what the government called a false story, saying that Suluhu would not run for office in the 2025 elections. The next month the government suspended Raia Mwema newspaper for 30 days for ‘distortion of information’ after it linked a gunman, who killed four people, to the CCM.

However, that may be changing: four newspapers had their licences restored in February after being banned in 2017. And earlier this month Freeman Mbowe, who had been detained after the 2020 elections that returned Magufuli to power, and three others of Chadema, were released after terrorism charges were dropped. But to Zitto Kabwe, a former MP and leader of the opposition party, Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Wazalendo, the system that allowed Magufuli’s ‘dictatorial directives’ was still in place. ‘The media now reports on issues that they were not able to during Magufuli’s time,’ he told The Africa Report. ‘However, nothing has changed in terms of laws.’

Suhulu has shown some ruthlessness in neutralising her opponents within the CCM though, accusing them of manoeuvring against her ahead of elections in 2025. The parliamentary speaker, Job Ndugai, was forced out after he took a swipe at her government’s foreign debt policy. Humphrey Polepole, one of Magufuli’s confidants and former CCM spokesman, was moved to the backbenches and then to a foreign posting in Malawi as he became more outspoken in his criticisms. She also reinstated Nehemiah Mchechu, the respected head of the National Housing Corporation until he was sacked by Magufuli in 2018.

‘I may look polite, and do not shout when speaking, but the most important thing is that everyone understands what I say and things get done as I say,’ Mama Samia said in a speech in 2020. Even her staunchest critics are listening now.

Commonwealth Update became Eye on the Commonwealth in January 2022. After 38 years in print form, the column has moved from the Round Table journal to the Round Table’s website. Originally Commonwealth Notebook, the column became Commonwealth Update in 1993. The new-look Eye on the Commonwealth will seek to provide a perspective on a topical development by the journal’s Commonwealth Update editor, Oren Gruenbaum.