One Year of Tanzanian President Hassan: What’s Changed?
March 19, 2022, marks the one-year anniversary of Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan’s inauguration. As the country’s former vice president, Hassan became the constitutionally mandated successor of late president John Magufuli after he allegedly died from Covid-19 in early March 2021.
Her unexpected rise to the presidency led to questions around real change and Tanzania’s democratic future. How would President Hassan handle Tanzania’s reputational fallout from five years of Magufuli’s autocratic rule, a weakened regulatory environment, and a botched response to Covid-19? Within the first few months of Hassan’s presidency, journalists repeatedly used the term “cautious optimism” when describing the positive changes Hassan was promising and—in some cases—implementing.
This commentary serves as a score card outlining President Hassan’s progress in five focus areas: (1) business enabling environment, (2) Covid-19 response, (3) freedom of speech (civil society and media), (4) regional leadership, and (5) treatment of the political opposition. In each of these categories, it takes stock of what she has promised and accomplished within her first year as president and notes where she has fallen short of her stated policy goals. It hopes to shed light on the question: What’s changed?
Business Enabling Environment
President Magufuli suffocated the regulatory environment, making Tanzania an unattractive investment destination compared to other African economies. He did this in part by introducing legislation demanding higher taxes from businesses in the mining, telecoms, and shipping industries, among others. He also went after large corporations, including Canadian-owned Barrick Gold, and ditched a $10 billion port construction deal with Beijing because of disagreeable terms. Meanwhile, Magufuli’s administration passed laws giving increased power to the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) to seize bank accounts of foreign traders over alleged unpaid state tax. During Magufuli’s five years in office, Tanzania’s GDP hovered at around $1 billion—half of what it was in the two years before he assumed the presidency.
Through speeches and official statements, President Hassan has signaled a desire to spur domestic economic growth and foreign investment. One month after she took office, Hassan made her first policy speech during which she publicly vowed to regain the trust of investors. She pledged to offer “incentives to strategic investors and dismantle hurdles that discourage investors from doing business in the country.”
President Hassan has made some headway in strengthening Tanzania’s enabling environment, though Magufuli-era economic policies remain a thorn in the country’s side.
In a symbolic move, President Hassan traveled to Kenya where she and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced an agreement to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Mombasa to Dar es Salaam. Around the same time, she declared that Tanzania intended to restart talks with Beijing to implement the $10 billion port project. In the interest of damage control, President Hassan brought on the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change to restore the country’s reputation as a friendly business environment, as well as set up the country’s Covid-19 response. Earlier this year, she also moved to fast-track discussions around new LNG projects—hoping that major firms like Shell and Equinor will begin construction in early 2023.
Despite these steps forward, the law requiring higher taxes from foreign firms as well as the law enabling greater TRA power are still in place. In addition, Tanzanians have been hit with higher taxes on goods and services critical to economic growth, including agriculture products, construction materials, petroleum, and mobile money transfers. As one anonymous Tanzanian academic reasoned: “If you increase the cost of products—including fuel and other materials—do you expect investors to come to Tanzania?”
Magufuli, who allegedly died of Covid-19, was one of its most fervent deniers. His approach toward the virus consisted of conspiracy theories, tight control over information, and aversion to science. Unsurprisingly, he refused to purchase Covid-19 vaccines, reasoning that “Vaccinations are dangerous. If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for Aids by now.”
During her first policy speech, President Hassan pivoted from Magufuli’s approach by promising action on Covid-19. She stated, “We cannot isolate ourselves as an island while the world is moving in a different direction.”
President Hassan has followed through on her intent to join the rest of the world in combating Covid-19. She set up a health task force that prompted the collection of official data, the implementation of social distancing measures, and the procurement of vaccines through COVAX. In July 2021, President Hassan launched the country’s vaccine drive by publicly receiving her Covid-19 jab. As of March 2022, approximately 4.5 percent of Tanzanians are vaccinated against Covid-19. This is impressive given Tanzania’s late start to Covid-19 precautions as well as the pervasive public resistance toward the vaccine. Yet, Tanzania’s vaccination rate pales in comparison to those of neighboring Rwanda (60 percent), Mozambique (37 percent), and Kenya (15 percent).
Freedom of Speech (Civil Society and Media)
During his presidency, Magufuli tightened control over civil society organizations and media outlets. He passed legislation to censor groups that demanded government transparency or defied government narratives. Legislation included:
- The 2015 Cybercrimes Act (restricted free expression online.
- The 2015 Statistics Act (criminalized the publication of statistics without government approval before it was amended in 2019)
- The 2016 Media Services Act (enabled the government to censor and limit media independence)
- 2018 regulations to the Electronic and Postal Communications Act (subjected bloggers to exorbitant licensing fees)
Starting in 2019, Magufuli enacted at least four laws that restricted operations of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), allowing the government to monitor, deregister, and suspend civil society groups. And within 2020 alone, Magufuli’s administration fined at least 10 media outlets and suspended programming of at least six media channels.
During her first policy speech as president, Hassan said: “I have heard there are media that were banned. Reopen them, we should not give them room to say we are shrinking press freedom.” She added that those media groups, once reopened, should “follow the rules.” In early 2022, Minister for Information, Communication, and Information Technology Nape Nnauye announced the government was planning to amend the 2016 Media Services Act in an effort to uphold the welfare and safety of journalists.
President Hassan’s track record on civil society and media freedoms has been mixed. Her administration recently lifted the ban on four newspapers that were outlawed under Magufuli in an effort to ease media restrictions. But still, activists continue to be threatened and abducted, and at least two newspapers have been temporarily suspended: the first for publishing a story that Hassan would not compete for the presidency in 2025, and the second for identifying a man who killed three security personnel as a member of the ruling party. And, perhaps most critically, the laws that Magufuli put in place to choke civil society and media groups are largely still in place. According to an anonymous civil society activist, “media and activists have figuratively been taken out of ‘prison,’ but the laws that put them in prison are still there.”
Magufuli disrupted regional trade and alienated regional leaders with his unconventional approach to Covid-19. He also remained largely silent on the growing insurgency in northern Mozambique, which crept into southern Tanzania during his presidency.
President Hassan’s rhetoric and tone during regional state visits suggest she aims to reset relations that suffered under her predecessor, particularly in the areas of Covid-19, trade, and security.
President Hassan understands the value of showing up as a regional leader. Within her first four months in office, she traveled to Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi on official state visits, as well as to Mozambique for an emergency meeting convened by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). She has worked to restore trade relations with Kenya, including by announcing the LNG pipeline between Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, though there is still much historical mistrust to address. Continentally, President Hassan moved to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, making Tanzania one of 41 of the 54 signatories to ratify the framework. However, countries belonging to both SADC and the East African Community (EAC) are frustrated by Tanzania’s slow implementation of regional trade agreements.
In response to violence in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, President Hassan increased border control but has relied on Rwanda to lead on troop deployment efforts. Earlier this month, SADC launched a Regional Counter Terrorism Centre in Dar es Salaam, suggesting Tanzania may play a more central role in counterinsurgency efforts in Mozambique.
Treatment of Political Opposition
President Magufuli did everything in his power to intimidate and silence his political opponents. Under his leadership, police banned political rallies by opposition parties and there were numerous attacks on members of the political opposition. His administration is widely believed to have been behind the 2017 shooting of Tundu Lissu, deputy chairman of the Chadema opposition party and Magufuli’s key rival in the October 2020 election.
President Hassan has voiced a more tolerant approach toward the political opposition, even urging opposition parties to consult the law for guidance on conducting political rallies “without violence and insults or damage to other people’s property.”
President Hassan’s track record on the political opposition has been less impressive than her rhetoric. The ban on opposition rallies is still in effect, and, according to a Tanzanian academic who wishes to remain anonymous, “it doesn’t require any political process to lift the ban. It’s been a huge disappointment.” In addition, President Hassan’s administration arrested opposition leader Freeman Mbowe in July 2021 ahead of a rally calling for constitutional reforms. While many believe she ordered Mbowe’s arrest to shore up support within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, the development dealt a huge blow to her democratic credibility. Mbowe was recently released in a highly publicized, curated spectacle, with CCM pledging to "defend democracy, good governance and the rule of law.” Meanwhile, the secretary general of Chadema, the opposition party to which Mbowe belongs, said he would "be even more relieved when Tanzania has a new constitution [and] an independent electoral body.”
The progress that President Hassan has made in each of the above focus areas points to the potential for sustainable change, but only if serious concerns around the existence of repressive Magufuli-era laws and the continued intimidation of CCM critics are addressed. President Hassan will need to strike a balance between navigating CCM infighting, consolidating control within the party (as she did in January by reshuffling her cabinet), and genuinely engaging activist demands. Here are three developments to watch:
- Constitutional Reform. Tanzanian opposition leaders have long called for reforms to the 1977 constitution, which codified CCM’s monopolization of the state. Tanzania introduced multiparty politics in 1992, but that was through a constitutional amendment—not genuine constitutional reform. This means that the constitution provides enormous power to the president (including the ability to appoint officials down to the district level) and leaves little hope for plurality or decentralized power. While President Hassan has signaled her intent to meet with the political opposition for constructive dialogue, she has not explicitly commented on engaging in the constitutional reform process. She should take pointers from South Africa and Kenya—which both successfully reformed through constitutions—if she wants to be remembered for fostering national unity.
- Getting Natural Gas Right. President Hassan has an opportunity to boost Tanzania’s GDP, add two percentage points to the country’s economic growth rate, spur job creation, and increase domestic natural gas use as she negotiates with foreign oil companies regarding production of LNG from significant natural gas finds off the coast of southern Tanzania. This is a critical time for Hassan to get the “right deal” for Tanzania while ensuring external partners remain engaged with a reliable regulatory environment. If Hassan succeeds, the positive outcomes could be magnified as European companies shun Russian gas exports and increasingly look to African countries as potential long-term gas supply partners.
- Free and Fair Elections. Tanzania’s next general elections will be held in 2025, when citizens vote for both the president and members of parliament. The country’s most recent general election in October 2020 resulted in opposition parties winning only 3 of 264 directly elected parliamentary seats, down from 68 seats in 2015. This was due in part to years of growing intimidation and disqualification of opposition members running for office at the local level, as well as the ban on political rallies by the opposition, as noted above. If President Hassan wants the 2025 elections—in which she will officially run—to be free and fair, she should not turn a blind eye to these suppression tactics. In addition, international election observers should take a proactive approach to monitoring suppression of the opposition, recognizing that developments occurring years before the actual vote have an impact on election results.
Marielle Harris is a research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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