Tanzania: Cautious optimism as President Suluhu Hassan signals new policies

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam

Posted on Thursday, 8 April 2021 20:44, updated on Monday, 12 April 2021 19:30
Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan attends the funeral service of former President John Magufuli in his home town of Chato, Tanzania Friday, March 26, 2021. (AP Photo)

Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan has been announcing some changes to policies imposed by her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli. Some Tanzanians are cautiously optimistic about a less combative style of politics. 

President Hassan took over in March when Magufuli died after weeks of speculation about his whereabouts. Magufuli revelled in his image a strongman leader who fought corruption, took on multinationals in the gold sector, crushed the opposition and silenced media outlets critical of the government.

Hassan had not held powerful policy-making positions before becoming president, so there is uncertainty about what direction she will take the country in. Initial signs indicate her administration will be more liberal and open than Magufuli’s; but she has yet to unveil a national roadmap or plans for her first 100 days in office.

But already, she has announced changes that have perked people’s interests.

Media freedoms

In a move hailed as a positive future for press freedom in the Swahili-speaking country, President Hassan ordered the information ministry to lift the ban on media outlets that were muzzled for criticising the former government.

The government had shut down several media houses such as Mawio, Mwanahalisi, Tanzania Daima and Mseto for publishing allegedly false information with the goal of harming national security.

Speaking at State House in Dar es Salaam, Hassan said that as long as the media respect the law and guidelines, they would be allowed to operate.

“I am told you revoked licenses of some media outlets, including some online television stations. You should lift the ban but tell them to follow the law and government’s guidelines,” the President told the information ministry.

The Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority had also imposed bans to several online media, such as the popular Kwanza TV, which is owned and operated by online activist Maria Sarungi.

The international non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders had said Tanzania was becoming “increasingly authoritarian” after Magufuli became [resident in 2015. None of the 180 countries ranked in its World Press Freedom Index had suffered such a precipitous decline in recent years.

A former secretary general of the Tanzania Editors’ Forum, Neville Meena, says Hassan’s statement signals a new approach in dealing with the media. He adds: “I urge the authority to repeal all laws that hinder press freedom and freedom of expression, we come from a very difficult environment. I applaud the government.”

But online activist and managing director of Kwanza TV Maria Sarungi says she is reluctant to praise such moves the government.

“How can we operates under these draconian laws? The President needs to initiate process of reviewing all harsh laws passed by President Magufuli before allowing us to operate. A lot of money is needed to run media companies. How can we bounce back so quickly just because of the President’s statement, while harsh laws still remain in place?” Sarungi asks The Africa Report.

On 7 April, the newly appointed government spokesman, Gerson Msigwa, said in a tweet that the president had agreed to lift the ban on online television only and no other media including newspapers.

Despite small start to lifting some of the media bans, the Legal and Human Rights Centre director Anna Henga told The Citizen Newspaper that she is confident of President Hassan’s approach.

New shift in response to Covid-19

On the issue of Covid-19 pandemic President Hassan has already taken a very different approach to that of her predecessor.

Magufuli, who died on 17 March at the age of 61, did not urge Tanzanians not to observe measures put in place by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Nearly a year ago, he even declared Tanzania to be free from the virus following three days of praying.

Since May 2020, his administration also stopped keeping data on Covid-19 infections, prompting countries across the globe to warn their citizens against travelling to Tanzania, citing a high risk of contacting the disease.

Speaking earlier this week, President Hassan said she is looking ahead to form a task force of experts that will advise the government on how to deal with Covid-19.

“On this issue of Covid-19, I think I should form a committee of experts to look at it professionally and then advise the government,” the President said. “We cannot isolate ourselves as if we are an island, but also we cannot accept everything brought to us,” she said during an address aired live by national broadcaster TBC 1.

Steven Kimbisa, a student at Arusha University, says he believes the President is taking the country in the right direction. “I agree with her, we should not isolate ourselves because we belong to a global community,” he says.

But a health expert in Mara, north-western Tanzania tells The Africa Report that it is a waste of time to form a committee while the whole world is heading in the same direction. “Other countries are now busy vaccinating their own people. The President is forming a task force for what purpose? Let’s observe what others are doing right now.”

Tundu Lissu, the leading opposition figure currently in living in exile in Belgium, used his Twitter account to criticise the President’s decision to form a task force.

“We all know the steps used against Covid-19. They are not prayers, steam inhalation or local remedies. They are testing, sharing data, contact tracing, wearing masks, vaccines and cooperating with the international community. It’s science and the WHO. Make an example of yourself!”, wrote Lissu.

Lissu was among the leading figures who openly criticised the late president’s approach in dealing with the pandemic.

Bottom line

Although President Hassan has started to bring about changes, Magufuli’s nearly six years in office had a major impact on the country, one that cannot be changed in a day.

While Tanzanians remain relatively supportive of the new direction President Hassan appears to be taking, the reality is she has not done anything yet to turn a page on Magufuli’s main economic, social and political policies.

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