When the Tanzanian president took office last year after her predecessor died suddenly from suspected COVID-19, it was seen as the start of a new era.
Samia Suluhu Hassan, the East African state’s first female president, immediately sought to distance herself from her former boss when she told parliament to “stop comparing me to [John] Magufuli”.
Yet analysts were unsure what to make of Hassan, who was vice president of a regime that had isolated Tanzania from its neighbors and the international community. Former President John Magufuli had pushed Tanzania to new levels of authoritarianism and turned the country into a global pariah due to its denial of COVID-19.
Hassan’s trip to the United States in April, his second in less than a year, was seen by his supporters as proof that Tanzania is charting a new course.
“It’s a 180 degree turn from what its predecessor was,” Fahad Awadh, co-founder of YYTZ AgroProcessing, a Zanzibar-based cashew company told Al Jazeera. “She goes out and builds bridges with these other countries. She has traveled extensively in the last year to the UK, France, Belgium, Dubai, Kenya and Uganda in the region.
Reintegrate into the international community
His swift diplomacy is interpreted as an intention to bring foreign investors back to Tanzania after hostile domestic policies and rhetoric have hampered foreign domestic investment for years.
Magufuli, known as the “bulldozer” in the international press, has scared off foreign companies by imposing huge retrospective fines on mining companies and setting tough contract terms for various development projects.
Hassan’s trip to the United States reportedly brought in $1 billion in investments from various American companies, indicating that foreign investors are seeing positive changes in Tanzania. It has been reported that US companies are interested in sectors ranging from tourism to energy.
“[The $1bn] has and will undoubtedly contribute to the economic growth of Tanzania but, in this way, will contribute to growth – economic growth and jobs in the United States as well,” said US Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Hassan has also encountered. .
Hassan also met Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the global lender’s Spring Meetings in Washington.
On the same trip, she traveled to New York and Los Angeles to launch the premiere of a new state-backed documentary, Tanzania: The Royal Tour, which promotes tourism in the West African country. ballast. The film shows Hassan visiting popular tourist destinations in Tanzania such as Mount Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar in a bid to boost post-COVID tourism.
The changing tide stands in stark contrast to Magufuli who rarely left Tanzania and discouraged foreign travel by senior officials. In fact, the former president made just 10 international trips during his six years in office – none outside eastern and southern Africa.
Magufuli’s inclination towards a more nationalist and isolationist agenda was reflected in the government’s hostile approach to donors and development partners.
In 2018, Magufuli said he preferred Chinese loans to Western aid because they came with fewer strings attached.
In the same year, Denmark, the European Union and the World Bank reviewed aid programs with Tanzania after the government banned pregnant girls from school and high-ranking politicians were accused of homophobia.
Jens Reinke, IMF representative for Tanzania, told Al Jazeera that multinational lenders have started to re-engage with Tanzania. The Fund is currently working on a three-year loan package that will come with a “substantial amount of financing and an ambitious reform agenda”.
Reinke added that discussions between Tanzania and the IMF were “less intensive” during the Magufuli era and that the upcoming loan should accelerate economic development.
“Go back online”
The new momentum has raised hopes that some of Tanzania’s biggest infrastructure projects will finally come to fruition.
One of the biggest opportunities for Tanzania is a $30 billion liquefied natural gas project that has seen little progress since talks with investors began more than six years ago.
Negotiations between the former administration and gas companies Shell and Equinor have stalled after the government insisted that arbitration take place in Tanzania. The two sides held successful talks in Arusha in November, promising to restart the development of around 57 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Analysts say the government is particularly interested in the project as demand for African energy rises as European countries scramble to find substitutes for Russian gas.
In an interview, Hassan told reporters that the country, which has the sixth largest gas reserves in Africa, is already looking to European markets.
“There seems to be a new development in Tanzania where gas is coming back online,” Admassu Tadesse, CEO of the Eastern and Southern Trade and Development Bank (TDB), told Al Jazeera.
The $10 billion development of a “mega port” at Bagamoyo, half an hour north of Dar-es-Salaam, is another project that was previously dead in the water. Last June, Hassan reignited talks with Omani and Chinese project leaders, renewing hopes that Tanzania will create an industrial zone to rival the port of Mombasa in neighboring Kenya.
The president has also made significant changes to the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party to “distance herself from the former president”, says Ally Saleh, a Zanzibar politician and member of the ACT-Wazalendo party.
Several party members who were sacked by Magufuli have been reinstated and many of the former president’s policies have been reversed.
Additionally, the government has begun a reversal of COVID-19 protocols by beginning to collect pandemic-related data and work with multilateral health agencies like COVAX to deliver vaccines.
Magufuli, a known COVID denialist and vaccine skeptic, has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus and put in place very few restrictions while much of the rest of the world was in complete lockdown.
Despite a recent government push to tackle the deadly virus, analysts say Magufuli’s unique take on COVID has created higher levels of anti-vax sentiment in the country, leading to significant vaccine hesitancy even after his death. dead.
A changing tone
Hassan also offered an olive branch to key opposition leaders like Tundu Lissu and took steps to lift draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and the media. However, some opposition leaders say the reforms are still superficial as the ban on opposition rallies remains in place, along with numerous Magufuli-era laws to stifle civil society.
The seven-month detention of opposition leader Freeman Mbowe after his arrest last July dealt a blow to Hassan’s democratic credentials. The president of the main opposition Chadema party was pushing for constitutional reforms when he was imprisoned for “terrorism”. A court has since ordered his release.
Chadema is also pushing for a commission of inquiry to hold accountable the perpetrators of torture and murder during Magufuli’s time.
Within his party, Hassan also faces opposition from Magufuli’s hardliners. Some of the former president’s supporters are breaking away from the CCM and forming a party called Umoja to continue Magufuli’s policies.
Cashew nut businessman Awadh said Hassan was under heavy pressure to bring about rapid change in Tanzania, but in reality “it will still take time for these changes to show up”.
“The important thing is that the tone has changed,” he said. “She and her government are saying the right things. Tanzania is becoming more open and democratic. But it will take time to be reflected in the law.”