The real test of Samia Suluhu Hassan’s leadership came three weeks ago when rumors started on social media that Tanzania’s President John Magufuli was gravely ill.
As she tried to assure Tanzania and the whole world that all was well, every appearance she made on national television injected more suspicion on Magufuli’s health. It also, inadvertently, illuminated Ms Suluhu from the background she had operated from for the last five years as the country’s vice president.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that today… we lost our brave leader, the President of the Republic of Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli,” she announced, and with that statement, it became apparent that she is taking over as Tanzania’s next president at a time when there are rising deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic that the late Magufuli denied to his last breath.
Suluhu’s entry into Tanzania’s government was unexpected. As a Zanzibari and a Muslim woman, she came into the leadership somewhat carrying the weight of having to prove a point in the mainland Tanzania that still battled male chauvinism and flickers of religious mistrust between the two regions.
She has admitted in many meetings that she is often confronted with many situations where she is reminded of how deficient her leadership is due to her womanhood.
“I have risen to this position as a result of my competence and not through favours,” she repeatedly said in media interviews.
Her political journey started in 2000 when she was elected as a special seat member to the Zanzibar House of Representatives and was appointed a minister by President Amani Karume.
In 2005, she was re-elected. Suluhu’s 2012 election into the national assembly where she got more than 80 per cent of the votes solidified the fact that people were recognising her leadership skills.
Her personality contradicts that of her boss. Many say it is their differences in mannerism and ideologies that made them a unique yet powerful pair in Tanzania’s fledgling democracy.
Magufuli’s speeches carried the rhythm of forceful preaching and often controversial declarations, like when he insisted school girls who got pregnant should not be allowed to go back to school lest they ‘contaminate’ others.
Suluhu is described by many as soft-spoken and slow to anger. When tempers ran high in Tanzania’s parliament in past sessions, Suluhu sat almost unfazed while reminding the members of the need to be calm.
Aurelia Gabriel, a journalist in Tanzania, says they call her ‘mama’ as she embodies the motherhood that Tanzanians have come to embrace over the years.
“She is not talkative but when she speaks, it is always to rebuke evil in society. She is passionate about gender equality and condemning sexual violence,” says Aurelia.
Suluhu’s critics, however, say she was subdued and her greatest undoing was that she kept quiet at a time when many expected her ‘voice as a mother’ to be amplified.
“She should have said something about coronavirus. She should have spoken as a mother who has carried children in her womb when people started dying of the disease. Her silence will be remembered,” says a Tanzanian who lost her daughter from what was suspected to be coronavirus in December.
When asked to describe herself in media interviews, she always shies off from talking about her personal life. Suluhu surprised many during a gender function when she made a disclosure about her marriage. She told the crowd that while many view her as a powerful figure in East Africa, in her house, she is a submissive wife who kneels before her husband, Hafidh Ameir, as a sign of honour to the man she loves.
“In front of my husband, I am no vice president. I will kneel, and that is not because I am inferior. No. It is because of the deep love I have for him,” she said.
Ameir is a retired agriculture officer and currently a consultant. Their children are in careers ranging from business to information technology. Their daughter Mwanu Hafidh followed in the mother’s footsteps and is a member of the Zanzibar House of Representatives.
Suluhu avoids the glitter and glow that comes with power. Instead, she dons a hijab even when she attends the high-profile meetings to represent Magufuli, it is her down-to-earth nature that stood out.
She strives to live an ordinary life of a Muslim leader, with a hijabi female bodyguard always by her side. She is a mother of four, one daughter and three sons.
Before becoming Tanzania’s tenth vice president, she was a minister of state under the vice-president’s office. She also served in the government of Zanzibar in different capacities.
Her website describes her as a chaser of good education. After secondary education in 1977 she joined The Zanzibar Institute of Financial Administration where she studied statistics.
Upon completion, she was employed by the Ministry of Planning and Development. In 1986 she joined the Institute of Development Management- IDM (present Mzumbe University) in Morogoro, Eastern Tanzania for advanced studies in Public Administration.
Later Suluhu proceeded to Pakistan to study public administration. She also went to the Institute of Management for Leaders, Hyderabad in India for a Certificate Management Course.
In 1992, she worked on a project funded by the World Food Programme. She later attended the University of Manchester in London for a Postgraduate Diploma in Economics. In 2004 -2005, she progressed to Masters Degree in Community Economic Development through a joint-programme between the Open University of Tanzania and the Southern New Hampshire University, USA.
Her presidency adds to the many global women such as US Vice President Kamala Harris.
“This is a very strong statement and must be a critical lesson to the continent and the region that a woman, and one in a hijab, in this case, can be president, said Ahmed Hashi, a governance expert in regional affairs.
Suluhu’s in-tray is full. She faces Tanzania’s struggling economy, the damning reality of Covid-19 that her country was made to believe they had overcome, and the universality of gender inequalities that she has continued to address.
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