The death of Magufuli and the rise of Suluhu: The significance of Suluhu’s presidency in Tanzania and beyond

A- A A+

Change of guard in Tanzania

President Samia Suluhu Hassan is now the head of state of the United Republic of Tanzania following the death of immediate former President, John Pombe Magufuli, which was announced on Wednesday 17 March 2021. The death of Magufuli marks the first time Tanzanians are having to confront the reality of the death of a sitting president in the country’s 60 years of independence. Whereas there are a few isolated alternative voices, led by exiled opposition leader, Tundu Lissu, the news of the death of Magufuli was largely greeted with deep shock throwing the country into a mournful state.

Missing president, rumours and big announcement

The late Magufuli, nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’ due to his modus operandi, was a polarising leader who has left a mixed legacy. A leading Covid-19 denier, Magufuli was both revered and reviled.  His death came after days of speculation about his health and whereabouts given that he had not been seen in public for a while. While the government sought to assure the public that the President was well, social media was awash with speculation about the whereabouts of Magufuli with claims he had been flown to the Nairobi, Kenya for treatment. Growing concerns about the President’s wellbeing saw Tanzania’s opposition leaders demand immediate disclosure of his whereabouts.

The government, however, maintained that the President was fine with the Prime Minister, Kassim Majaliwa, blaming the rumours on hateful Tanzanians living abroad (apparently in reference to exiled opposition leader, Tundu Lissu) further stating that “Tanzanians should be at peace…your president is around, healthy, working hard”.

Furthermore, against claims by Lissu that Magufulu succumbed to Covid-19 related complications, the “authorities have insisted the death was caused by heart complications”. Nevertheless, during the announcement of his death, government eventually confirmed that Magufuli had been ill for about two weeks prior to his death confirming Lissu’s earlier allegations that revealed as much.

Understandably, the government may have wanted to carefully manage the situation by giving measured information to the public. Yet, the surging rumours and claims by the opposition leader that the President was critically ill carry various lessons. The first is the apparent impossibility to conceal certain information during this age of social media and ubiquitous information. The second is the need to pay attention to some of the originators of certain rumours. It is unlikely that the person of the stature of Lissu, a former Presidential candidate, could peddle baseless allegations about a matter as grave as the health of a President. Last and even more damaging, is “a growing recognition that the government cannot be trusted” which may proof difficult to regain in the long term.

Smooth Transition

On Friday 19 March 2021, President Suluhu was sworn in as the 6th President of Tanzania in a brief ceremony at Statehouse grounds in the country’s commercial hub of Dar es Salaam. President Suluhu had been serving as the Vice President since 2015. Her swearing in is in accordance with Tanzania’s Constitution which, in article 37 (5), clearly stipulates that “where the Office of President becomes vacant…the Vice-President shall be sworn in and become the President for the unexpired period of the term of five years…” President Suluhu will therefore, serve the remainder of the current term which expires in 2025.

There were concerns about what the death of a sitting President in a formative democracy would mean. This is especially the case given that challenges of transition during the death of a sitting President have been witnessed elsewhere including in Tanzania’s neighbouring Malawai. There appears to have been tensions particularly with the ruling party, ‘Chama Cha Mapinduzi’ (CCM) over the succession question. The setup and the announcement of the death of Magufuli by then Vice President Suluhu at the peripheral coastal town of Tanga is arguably a pointer to a hurried decision to initiate the process. The clearest indication of possible internal wrangles over transfer of power was during the memorial service of President Magufuli held in the capital, Dodoma, on Monday 22 March 2021. In her speech, delivered in Kiswahli, President Suluhu said: “for those who are doubtful whether I can be President of Tanzania…I want to tell them that the person standing here is President of the Republic of Tanzania…I want to repeat that the person standing in front of you is the President of Tanzania…whose anatomy is female”. This was a strongly-worded message seemingly directed at those who doubted her ability to succeed President Magufuli.

Whereas there may have been tensions over transfer of power, particularly within CCM, it never boiled into the public domain. President Suluhu was sworn in within 24 hours of the death of Magufuli, in accordance with country’s constitution marking a smooth transfer of power in Tanzania.

The Significance of Suluhu’s Presidency

It is too early to tell whether or not to expect a quick break from the polarising style of the Magufuli’s ‘bulldozing’ leadership. However, there is a view that President Suluhu “stands a chance to heal a polarised Tanzanian society”. Fondly referred to as ‘mama’ (mother) – with a name (Suluhu) that coincidentally means solution (in Kiswahili) and amity (from its Arabic root ‘sulh’) – President Suluhu strikes a contrast with Magufuli in terms of her personality and leadership style. While Magufuli was impulsive, Suluhu is said to be thoughtful and considered, with one of the Tanzanian politicians who have worked with her describing President Suluhu as “the most underrated politician in Tanzania”.

Even as we wait to see how she shapes her policy; I argue that President Suluhu’s presidency is significant in many ways.

Suluhu’s presidency perpetuates a well-established tradition in Tanzania to rotate power between Christian and Muslim communities and between the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. While there is hardly any attention to this apparent power rotation, it comes across as an unspoken consensus contributing to the low salience of ethnic and religious tensions in Tanzania.

Secondly, President Suluhu is now the only female President in Africa given that Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde’s presidency is ceremonial. Suluhu is equally the first female President in the history of East Africa given that Burundi’s Sylvie Kinigi, who is often cited as the first, only served as acting President from 27 October 1993 to 5 February 1994. The significance of a female President in Africa, indeed the world, cannot be overemphasised. As Nanjala Nyabola observed on Twitter: “This is important. It may not carry the entire weight of feminist progress—merely having Samia Suluhu in office will not instantly fix everything—but it is disingenuous to pretend that it is not important”.

Furthermore, having a Muslim woman as President, sends a powerful positive image of Tanzania to world. It reaffirms Tanzania’s high level of religious tolerance. Most importantly, it portrays Tanzania’s political progress in terms of women’s ability to rise to the top. This is especially important for the marginalised Muslim women across the world. Suluhu’s Presidency is, therefore, a story of inspiration and hope for Tanzania and beyond.


Ibrahim Magara is a Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance. He is a founding director of Amani Africa Consultancy based in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is actively engaged in peace research and peace policy advice in Africa.