A Woman President Emerges in Africa
Amb Gurjit Singh

The emergence of Samia Sulu Hassan as the President of Tanzania has gone quietly unnoticed.1 She was the incumbent Vice President, who has succeeded to the presidency, following the demise of President Magfuli,2 who had won an election last year. However, the more important fact is that Samia Sulu is a lady politician, who has been the Vice President since 2015, and is now the only executive female president in Africa. This is truly a laudable achievement which deserves greater recognition. The only other lady president in Africa today is Sahlework Zewdie in Ethiopia.

The significance of this lies in that women normally find it difficult to reach pinnacles of political power in Africa and are often dependent on proving their mettle several times over. Often, they are accommodated in ministries or in Parliament. Two top contenders for the Director General of WTO for such accomplished African women: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Amina C Mohammed of Kenya. In 2019 Africa had 16 women Speakers out of 75 Houses of Parliament.3

Tanzania is an interesting experiment which continues to succeed in its political institutional engagements. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar came together to form Tanzania, under the leadership of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere it was factored in that Zanzibar would always have a say in the governance of the new state. This was ensured by having one of the two Vice Presidents of the Union, always coming from Zanzibar. In 1995 the Vice Presidency was reduced to one person and has always been from Zanzibar till now. The convention is among the President and Vice President one must be from Zanzibar and this is now Zanzibar’s rare rise to the Presidency and that too through a woman politician. Moreover, Tanzania provides for 30 per cent reserved seats in Parliament for women appointed by political parties, based on proportional representation.4

President Sulu was selected by President Magfuli, to be his running mate in 2015 an they stood together for re-election in 2020 during the pandemic. Little did President Sulu realized that fate would bring her to a position of leadership in a crisis. This crisis stemmed from a poor assessment of the pandemic and its impact by the government in Tanzania, almost to the point of denial. President Magfuli was not seen in public since February. His demise was announced on 17th March. Rumours persist that he died of Covid, but since Covid is not acknowledged by the Tanzanian government no reason was announced. A few days earlier, his Chief of Staff, John Kijazi, a former High Commissioner to India had also passed away of unstated disease.5 Zanzibar’s 77-year-old First Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad, who had been undergoing treatment for COVID-19 in hospital, also died on 17 February.6

Besides the denial of the pandemic, Tanzania was facing a strong opposition backlash because President Magfuli had led a strong fight against corruption, emphasized diligent work and had an agenda, which saw investments in major parastatals, often leading to quarrels with leading mining companies. Mostly this earned President Magfuli strong popular support. Others said he had run the economy into the ground, carrying his agenda, too far. His large public acceptance was seen as allowing him the ability to narrow political space and increase control over government mechanisms, leading to sharpened cleavages in the political fabric of Tanzania, which was generally known to be a cohesive political entity.7 The election victory in 2020 with an 84% vote share raised eyebrows. And in the midst of all this, Mama Samia, as the President has been popularly known, takes over as leader of the country for the remainder four years of the term.

President Samia has been seen as a consensus driven and diplomatic persona. She is known to be less raucous and outspoken, and believing in quiet governance, which may reduce popular rhetoric and curbs on opposition and online expression. However, she does not have a clear base, either in Zanzibar, or in the ruling CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi i.e. Party of Revolution). She needs to formally deal with the pandemic. Since it was only in February 2021 that her government finally encouraged people to wear masks, now it will need to take a call on whether vaccines need to be obtained for the people. Most analysts believe that the denial attitude of her predecessor had negative impact on public health. Thus dealing with the pandemic is at the top of the new President's agenda. And if she handled that well, perhaps, economic recovery will ensue.

Now a more cohesive and less cleaved political engagement could occur in Tanzania. Mama Samia first came to Dar es Salaam to join the National Parliament after being a junior minister in Zanzibar during the presidency of President Kikwete. He appointed her as a minister and retains good relations with her. It is entirely possible that former President Kikwete, who retains considerable clout in Tanzania, would have been there behind the scenes along with the armed forces, to bring stability to Tanzania following the mystery behind the death of the President. He would have played a role in bringing President Samia into power. Normally, the political inheritors in Tanzania would have preferred one of their own, but it is the Kikwete Army support for orderly succession that brought Mama Samia with her lady like approach to politics, and her considerable experience, to rise to the top. In a country which is 61% Christian it is noteworthy that a female Muslim Politician is from the autonomous Zanzibar is now the President.

It is worth noting that in Africa, there are very few women who have risen to executive power. Sirleaf Johnson, tried to become the president of Liberia in 1997, but lost to Charles Taylor. But her time came when she won two consecutive terms in 2005 and 2011, and governed Liberia for a decade, during which she also became the first lady to chair the Economic Community of West African States in 2016. That was a case of a woman politician directly winning an executive election. Another case like President Samia was that of Joyce Banda, who was the Vice President to long serving Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika when he suddenly died. She served as President for two years, 2012 to 2014 after having been a Vice President for three years. But she could not survive the shenanigans of the political elite and ultimately stepped out from the ruling party and the presidency, when the next election was held.

Besides Sahlework Zewdie, who is the non-executive president of Ethiopia presently, Mauritius has also had Ameenah Gurib-Fakimas President, from 2015 to 2018.8 The African Union had an executive, Chairperson of the AU commission in the South African leader. The AU Commission had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its female Chairperson (2012-17). Now it has a compulsion to have either the AU Commission Chair or Deputy Chair as a lady. But in most countries, women have got close to being interim presidents, and nothing more. It is this factor, which makes the acceptance of President Samia as the President of Tanzania at this important junctureextremely noteworthy.

Endnotes
  1. Dorothy Ndalu, Samia Suluhu takes oath as Tanzania's sixth president, The East African, 19 March 2021,https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/tea/news/east-africa/tanzania-samia-suluhu-presidential-oath-3328196

  2. Katia Patin:Tanzania’s president, a leader in spreading Covid misinformation, dies of Covid, Coda story, 19 March 2021, https://www.codastory.com/waronscience/tanzania-president-dies-coronavirus/
  3. Naye Bathily,Africa takes historic lead in female parliamentary speakers, World Bank Blogs, 13 February 2020.https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=Africa+takes+historic+lead+in+female+parliamentary+speakers
  4. Women claim their space in Tanzania’s elections, UNWomen, 23 October 2015, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2015/10/women-claim-their-space-in-tanzania-elections
  5. Paul Owere,Chief Secretary, Ambassador John Kijazi has died, The Citizen, 18 February 2021, https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/tanzania/news/chief-secretary-ambassador-john-kijazi-has-died--3295344
  6. Zanzibar Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad dies, Al Jazeera 17 February 2021,https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/17/zanzibar-vice-president-dies-after-suffering-covid-19
  7. Manu Lekunze:What is behind Tanzania’s authoritarian turn?, Al Jazeera, 2 December 2020,https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/12/2/magfulis-growing-authoritarianism-is-not-an-exception
  8. List of African Female Presidents, Africa Faith and Justice Network, 24 April 2019,https://afjn.org/list-of-female-african-presidents/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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