Tanzania gets its first woman leader: who is Samia Suluhu Hassan?

On 19 March 2021, Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn in as the new President of Tanzania. This makes her the country’s first woman head of state, and means that East Africa has its first woman president with real power: Sahle-Work Zewde, a woman, is Ethiopia’s president but she serves a largely ceremonial role in that system; Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali holds executive power.

Hassan’s ascension to the presidency comes after the death of controversial President John Magufuli, a Covid-sceptic who is widely thought to have died from Covid-related complications. The official line, however, is that he died from heart complications at a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

But who is Hassan, and will she do a better job than her predecessor? While Magufuli started off on a strong footing in 2015, with a big focus on fighting corruption, his reign descended into autocracy as he cracked down on the media, civil society and opposition figures. 

Hassan is 61 years old. She was born on 27 January 1960 in Zanzibar. She’s popular among ordinary Tanzanians, who call her “Mama”. Hassan obtained an Advanced Diploma at Mzumbe University in Tanzania in 1986 and later received two other qualifications abroad. 

Very little is known about Hassan’s private life. She is married to agriculture academic Hafidh Ameir. Together they have four children. One, Mwanu Hafidh Ameir, is currently a member of Zanzibar’s House of Representatives, the BBC reports.

Cutting her teeth in Zanzibar politics

Her political career can be traced back to 2000 when she ran for public office in her home territory of Zanzibar: the beautiful island that is a favourite with tourists is a semi-autonomous territory in a political union with Tanzania. She was elected as a special seat member to the Zanzibar House of Representatives and was appointed the territory’s Minister of Labour, Gender Development and Children. One of her achievements in this position was upending the ban on young mothers returning to school after giving birth. In 2005, she was appointed as Minister of Trade and Tourism by then-President Amani Karume of Zanzibar.

2014 was quite a year for Hassan. She made the jump to national politics when Tanzania’s then-President Jakaya Kikwete selected her to be Minister of Union Affairs in Tanzania. In the same year, Hassan played a central role in drafting the country’s new constitution as Vice Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. The document, however, failed to pass in the assembly.

In 2015 she was sworn in as Tanzania’s first woman Vice President, serving as Magufuli’s deputy. Hassan and Magufuli were re-elected for another term in October 2020.

Relationship with Magufuli

Hassan was quite loyal to Magufuli; however she was not afraid to call him out. In a speech she gave in 2020 she was quoted as saying to and about Magufuli: “When you started working as president, many of us did not understand what you actually wanted. We did not know your direction.” Hopefully this forthright manner bodes well for the country she now leads. 

Tanzanian activist Maria Sarungi told German outlet DW that she thinks the fact that Hassan is Muslim and hails from Zanzibar speaks volumes: Tanzania is a majority Christian country, and Hassan is visibly Muslim, wearing a headscarf. She is Africa’s first Muslim woman president. 

Sarungi also believes that the swearing-in ceremony itself was very symbolic, not only for Tanzanians but for many women and young girls around the world.

Often described as soft spoken, Hassan is anything but a timid leader. 

Getting things done

In a 2020 speech she said: “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,” The Telegraph reports.

According to BBC January Makamba, a member of the country’s National Assembly, said Hassan was the most underrated politician in Tanzania. He spoke of her capabilities as a leader and how he observed her work ethic, decision-making and temperament at close quarters. 

Aljazeera reports the key test of Hassan’s leadership will be her response to the Covid-19 pandemic – given how her predecessor Magufuli downplayed the gravity of the virus. Under Magufuli, there were no lockdown or curfew regulations. Numbers of Covid-19 cases were unknown and he declared Tanzania to be free of Covid-19. 

Hassan, together with Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, will also need to choose the country’s next deputy president.

So, what to make of Tanzania’s new leader? As exciting as it may be to see a woman hold such a high political position, we cannot be oblivious to the strife and hardship Tanzania experienced under Magufuli’s leadership. We hope for better policies that will better the lives of people in Tanzania. We hope that the Hassan administration will take into account the importance of putting regulations in place that will help curb the spread of Covid-19. May this be the end of an autocratic era and the beginning of a government that concerns itself with bettering its people’s lives.