Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan made history on Friday when she was sworn in as the country’s first female president following the sudden death of John Magufuli from a disease shrouded in mystery.
Hassan, 61, a soft-spoken Muslim woman from Zanzibar Island and vice president since 2015, will end Magufuli’s second five-year term, which runs until 2025.
Hassan wore a bright red shawl and swore in as the country’s sixth president at a ceremony in Dar es Salaam, where neither she nor the majority of participants wore a mask in the Covid-skeptical nation.
“I, Samia Suluhu Hassan, promise to be honest and to obey and protect Tanzania’s constitution,” the new president said as she took the oath before inspecting troops at a military parade and receiving a cannon salute.
She will be the only other current female head of state in Africa together with Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, whose role is mainly ceremonial.
Hassan was little known outside of Tanzania before appearing on state television on Wednesday night to announce that Magufuli had died of a heart condition after a mysterious absence from the public for three weeks.
But questions have been asked about the real cause of his death, after several rumors that Magufuli – one of the world’s most ardent Covid-skeptical leaders – had contracted the virus and had sought treatment abroad.
Tanzania’s main opposition leader Tundu Lissu insisted that his sources said that Magufuli had Covid-19 and had in fact died a week ago.
Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, which last week reported that an “African leader”, with clear reference to Magufuli, was in a hospital in Nairobi, provided more information about his illness on Friday. The report also indicated that Magufuli had actually died last week.
Citing sources, the newspaper said Magufuli was released from Nairobi Hospital on life support after it was decided he could not be resuscitated and returned to Dar es Salaam where he died last Thursday.
The newspaper reported its first evacuation to Nairobi on March 8 in a medical plane, as he was suffering from “acute heart and respiratory illnesses”.
In his short and gloomy address, Hassan called for unity. “This is a time to bury our differences and stand united as one country,” she said. “This is not a time for finger pointing, but it is a time to hold hands and move forward together,” she said, addressing a number of current and former officials who included two former presidents and uniformed military officials.
The main question hanging over the new president is whether she will initiate a change in leadership style from her predecessor, a cheeky populist nicknamed “Bulldozer” for muscling through politics and who drew criticism for her intolerance of dissent.
‘A new chapter’
Magufuli leaves a complex legacy after a turn to authoritarianism that saw him crack down on the media, activists and freedom of speech, while refusing to take any action against Covid-19.
He demanded prayer instead of face masks, refused to publish case statistics or implement lock-in measures and advocated alternative medicine.
In May last year, he revealed a papaya, quail and goat had tested positive for the virus in a covert operation, which proved “sabotage” at the national laboratory.
But in February, as cases escalated and the vice president of semi-autonomous Zanzibar was revealed to have died of Covid-19, Magufuli admitted that the virus was still circulating.
The opposition and rights groups have called on Hassan to change course.
“As we continue to mourn, let us use this period to open a new chapter to rebuild national unity and respect for freedom, justice, the rule of law, democracy and people-centered development,” said Freeman Mbowe, chairman of the opposition Chadema group, in a statement. Thursday.
He called on Hassan to “lead the nation toward reconciliation.”
At the same time, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the new government “has a chance at a fresh start by ending problematic past practices.”
‘Hold your breath’
But analysts say Hassan will be under early pressure from powerful Magufuli allies within the party, which dominate intelligence and other critical aspects of the government, and would seek to control her decisions and agenda.
“For those who expected a break from the Magufuli way, I would say hold your breath right now,” says Thabit Jacob, a researcher at Roskilde University in Denmark and an expert on Tanzania.
Hassan hailed from Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island in the Indian Ocean, and rose through the ranks during a 20-year political career from local government to the National Assembly.
A ruling party force, she was named Magufuli’s leading friend in the 2015 presidential campaign. The couple was re-elected in October last year in a controversial vote that is shrouded in accusations of irregularities.
Hassan must consult Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) to appoint a new vice president. The party is set to hold a special meeting of its central committee on Saturday.
Tanzania is following a 14-day mourning period and details of Magufuli’s funeral have not yet been announced.
Magufuli is the second East African leader to die under mysterious circumstances.
Burundi’s equally Covid-skeptical leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, died of “heart failure” in June last year after his wife flew to Nairobi to be treated for coronavirus.
( Jowharwith AFP, AP and REUTERS)