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Tanzania inaugurates its first female president

New Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan reviews troops
New Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, center right, inspects the guard of honor after being sworn in Friday in Dar es Salaam.
(Associated Press)

Samia Suluhu Hassan, 61, made history Friday when she was sworn in as Tanzania’s first female president two days after the death was announced of her controversial predecessor, John Magufuli, who denied that COVID-19 was a problem in the East African country.

Wearing a hijab and holding up a Quran with her right hand, Hassan took the oath of office at State House, the government offices in Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.

Hassan, who served as vice president under Magufuli, is the second woman in East Africa to serve as head of government. Sylvie Kinigi served as president of tiny landlocked Burundi for nearly four months until February 1994.

Hassan’s inauguration was witnessed by Cabinet members and former Tanzanian Presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Jakaya Kikwete and Abeid Karume. The former heads of state were among the few people in the room wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus.

Hassan succeeds Magufuli, who had not been seen in public for more than two weeks before his death was announced. Magufuli had denied that COVID-19 was a problem in Tanzania, saying that national prayer had eradicated the disease from the country. But weeks before his death, Magufuli acknowledged that the coronavirus was a danger.

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A major test of Hassan’s new presidency will be how she deals with the pandemic. Under Magufuli, Tanzania, one of Africa’s most populous countries, with 60 million people, made no efforts to obtain vaccines or promote the use of masks and social distancing to combat the coronavirus. The policy of ignoring the disease endangers neighboring countries, African health officials warn.

Tanzania’s president says God has eliminated COVID-19 in his country. His own church now begs to differ.

Although Hassan announced that Magufuli died of heart failure, exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu says the president died of COVID-19, citing informed medical sources in Dar es Salaam.

“The immediate job, the immediate decision she has to make, and she doesn’t have much time for it, is what is she going to do about COVID-19?” Lissu told the Associated Press at his place of exile in Belgium.

“President Magufuli defied the world, defied science, defied common sense in his approach to COVID-19, and it finally brought him down,” said Lissu. “President Samia Saluhu Hassan has to decide very soon whether she is changing course or continuing with the same disastrous approach to COVID-19 that her predecessor took.“

Hassan must also decide how she will address Magufuli’s legacy, said Lissu. He said she must decide whether to continue policies that took Tanzania from a relatively tolerant democracy to a repressive state. He questioned whether she would be able to restore the country’s political freedoms and democracy.

Africa has surpassed 100,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 as the continent struggles with a dangerous resurgence.

Lissu went into exile in 2017 after he was shot 16 times. The attack came shortly after Magufuli said those who were opposed to his economic reforms deserved to die. Lissu returned to Tanzania to challenge Magufuli in elections in October last year, and lost in polls marred by violence and widespread allegations of vote-rigging. Lissu returned to exile, saying his life was in danger.

Speaking at her inauguration, Hassan gave little indication that she intended to change course from Magufuli.

“It’s not a good day for me to talk to you because I have a wound in my heart,” said Hassan, speaking in Swahili. “Today I have taken an oath different from the rest that I have taken in my career. Those were taken in happiness. Today I took the highest oath of office in mourning.”

She said that Magufuli, “who always liked teaching,” had prepared her for the task ahead. “Nothing shall go wrong,” she said, urging the people to be united.

“This is the time to stand together and get connected. It’s time to bury our differences, show love to one another and look forward with confidence,” she said. “It is not the time to point fingers at each other but to hold hands and move forward to build the new Tanzania that President Magufuli aspired to.”

Hassan will complete Magufuli’s second term in office, which had just started after his election win in October.

Hassan has had a meteoric rise in politics in a male-dominated field.

After Magufuli selected her as his running mate in 2015, Hassan became Tanzania’s first female vice president. She was only the second woman to become vice president in the region since Uganda’s Specioza Naigaga Wandira, who was in office from 1994 to 2003.

Born in Zanzibar, Tanzania’s semi-autonomous archipelago, in 1960, Hassan went to primary school and secondary school at a time when very few girls in Tanzania were educated as parents thought a woman’s place was that of wife and homemaker.

After graduating from secondary school in 1977, Hassan studied statistics and started working for the government, in the Ministry of Planning and Development. She worked for a World Food Program project in Tanzania in 1992 and attended the University of Manchester in London to earn a postgraduate diploma in economics.

Hassan went into politics in 2000 when she became a member of the Zanzibar House of Representatives. In 2010, she won the Makunduchi parliamentary seat with more than 80% of the vote. In 2014 she was appointed a Cabinet minister and became vice chair of the Constitutional Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for Tanzania. She won respect for deftly handling several challenges.


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