What you need to know:
- Magufuli did what many African leaders tend to do: he dropped so many balls and made so many unforced errors.
- The successor, of course, has to be smart and politically astute enough to see the opportunity and seize it.
When Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn in just over two weeks ago as Tanzania’s new president after the death of her predecessor, John Magufuli, I read a stoutly argued article complaining that the media had not made a big enough deal about it.
That is because she had become Tanzania’s first female president, and while there have been a few before her, she is currently “the only woman running a country in Africa”, as one publication put it.
There was also a small debate about whether or not she was East Africa’s first female head of state. Some held that the honour belongs to Burundi’s Sylvie Kinigi. But since she was acting president for barely four months — October 27, 1993 to February 5, 1994 — many say that that doesn’t count. President Hassan, on the other hand, they contend, is the real deal.
The hesitancy around President Hassan, however, had little to do with her gender but her predecessor. When Dr Magufuli came to power in November 2015, he dazzled. In his early days, he was proclaimed the greatest thing since sliced bread and potentially a game-changing leader as he went at corruption, waste and laziness in ways few recent African leaders had. Then it all turned into a nightmare and all who had cheered him ran for the hills.
Became burned lovers
Though, doubtless, he did engineer real progress on the ground, including impressive rural electrification, and nearly succeeded in weaning Tanzania from aid, Magufuli broke many people’s hearts. They became burned lovers who were afraid to love again.
With Hassan’s entrance, too many people were afraid of getting egg on their face and proceeded with caution.
This week, she ordered that the media restrictions and bans of the Magufuli era be lifted. She also signalled a more mainstream scientific approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, announcing a committee of experts would be appointed to advise the government on how to handle it. Most likely, prayer and steam will be cancelled as the main weapons against the virus.
It will be at least another six months before there is certainty about the direction of Hassan’s presidency and how far she is willing to diverge from Magufuli, but in ways she is lucky.
Magufuli did what many African leaders tend to do: They drop so many balls, make so many unforced errors, that they leave their successors many low-hanging fruits to pick for a quick win.
The successor, of course, has to be smart and politically astute enough to see the opportunity and seize it, but there is a good pay day waiting.
In much the same way Jakaya Kikwete-era graft provided Magufuli an anti-corruption platform to catapult himself to the top of the hill, his delinquency on Covid-19 and over-the-top crackdown on media and civil society are wide-open opportunities for Hassan to project herself as a more liberal and enlightened leader.
The cruelty, governance incompetence and near-economic collapse of the Daniel arap Moi government was a godsend for Mwai Kibaki when he took over in 2002. Even if Kibaki had only sat in State House playing with his grandchildren, not being out there menacing, threatening and jailing everyone would still have seen him come out smelling like roses.
Indeed, in the first two to three years, he just sat in State House. But he is a clever man. He appointed a contingent of, especially, very good permanent secretaries and mid-level managers in government, kept out of people’s faces and allowed the best of Kenya to flourish. Even though his government was plagued by corruption, the crooks couldn’t eat all the fruit that was ripening.
In Burundi, where Evariste Ndayishimiye was elected in June 2020 after the sudden death of Covid-19-denying Pierre Nkurunziza, though he is in much the same mould as his predecessor, he has also benefitted from some low-hanging fruits. He found prisons overflowing and did himself some good by releasing a few thousand inmates.
Like day and night
Ndayishimiye has made measured, more sensible noises about Covid-19 and goes about his business with less drama than Nkurunziza. It has been enough for some to claim that the difference between them is like day and night.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has probably had the easiest job of all. Not being Jacob Zuma was enough. Zuma’s ineptitude, messiness and corruption were so off the charts things could only go up after he was evicted.
The follies of a president, therefore, might do damage to the people and country but they are fertiliser for their successor’s glory. Undoing them allows the new women and men to win public support and consolidate their power in the early days when the elements from the old order are still able to fight them.
This period usually lasts one year. Like regular goers to a popular show, after that, people want a new trick. President Hassan has about 335 days to work with.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3