from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Interview: Tundu Lissu on Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan and the Role of the West in Democratization

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan inspects a guard of honor mounted by the Tanzania Peoples Defense Forces after she was sworn into office following her predecessor John Magufuli's death, at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on March 19, 2021.
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan inspects a guard of honor mounted by the Tanzania Peoples Defense Forces after she was sworn into office following her predecessor John Magufuli's death, at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on March 19, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

This is the second half of a two-part interview conducted by Nolan Quinn, a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa Program, and reviewed by Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow John Campbell. The interview was held on March 19, 2021—the day after Tanzania President John Magufuli’s death was announced. The first half of the interview, on the need for constitutional reform in Tanzania, can be found here. Mr. Lissu has confirmed as accurate the quotes attributed to him in this post.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan, a Zanzibar native who was sworn in following former President John Magufuli’s death, is Tanzania’s sixth—and first female—president. Mama Samia, as she is affectionately known, is uniquely qualified to bring constitutional reforms—advocated for by opposition leader Tundu Lissu—to bear, having achieved national prominence in 2014 as the vice-chairperson of the Constituent Assembly created to draft a new constitution.

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Lissu called on the new president to “finish the job she began in 2014.” Many Tanzanians seem to agree: Privatus Karugendo, a Tanzanian political analyst, told The Continent that popular sentiment now favors a new constitution and an independent electoral commission, in addition to moves to facilitate national reconciliation in the post-Magufuli era.

Much has been made of Samia’s lack of her own political constituency—an evaluation which Lissu did not refute.

“She is weak in that she does not have a political power base. She is a Zanzibari at a time when the Union is under pressure. For a Zanzibari president to preside over non-Union matters will raise many of the same questions that were asked at the end of Mwinyi’s presidency,” Lissu said, referring to Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who became Tanzania’s second president (1985-1995) after serving nearly two years as president of Zanzibar and was accused of favoring Muslim and Zanzibari interests while in office.

But, even in Zanzibar, the new president does not have a strong following.

“She is from Unguja South,” a reference to one of Zanzibar’s five regions, “which is more pro-Union than most of the rest of Zanzibar. She has worked on the mainland. She has a Unionist background.” For this reason—and the general distrust of Zanzibaris in national office—Lissu, when asked whether President Hassan’s rise will make a serious revisiting of the ‘Zanzibar question’ more or less politically feasible, he opted for the latter.

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He nonetheless argues that “quite a lot” can be expected of the new president.

“There will be a quite substantial building of new coalitions,” Lissu projected, dismissing the idea that either the Kikwete or Magufuli camps within the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) will be able to seriously undermine the president’s authority.

“Kikwete’s CCM is what brought Magufuli to power, but Magufuli quickly dispersed of Kikwete’s CCM. The CCM of present is of his making.”

With Magufuli now gone, however, he does not see the former president’s backers posing a serious threat to President Hassan.

“They are in positions of power solely because of Magufuli. They do not have any credibility themselves nor do they have a base to draw on,” Lissu said, before going on to say that Magufuli’s empowerment of his Sukuma ethnic group weakened their position within CCM moving forward. While considered the country’s largest ethnic group, the Sukuma comprise only about 16 percent of the population; Lissu noted that they are “not big enough,” nor is tribalism “deeply rooted enough” in Tanzania’s politics, for Magufuli’s allies to push back significantly against their waning influence.

“I think they will be purged quickly—they have been disdainful towards everyone outside their small group, even within CCM. They made no effort to branch out.”

Magufuli, having “damaged the CCM brand,” has now left President Hassan with an opportunity to reshape the party.

“She will need to move slowly,” Lissu stated, before harkening back to the earlier discussion of the imperial presidency—which he believes should be reformed—to explain why he ultimately sees her being able to control the party.

“The imperial presidency gives powers like the monarchies in 17th and 18th century Europe. She controls the state. People will need to come to her.” Besides, he added, “CCM has no tradition of opposing the president.”

As for the immediate future, Lissu expects an approach that starkly contrasts with that of her predecessor and thinks that allowing opposition parties to operate more freely “could strengthen her hand.”

“Pursuing Magufulism without Magufuli is a dead end. Denying COVID-19 is a deadly dead end. The opposition survived Magufuli. Trying to fight the opposition would only erode her credibility faster.”

The Mild West

While the push for democratic progress—or even a stoppage of backsliding—will need to come primarily from within Tanzania, Lissu believes that “the international community has a major role to play.” But, in his eyes, mainstream foreign policy prescriptions about Africa coming from the West have often been unproductive.

“Trump’s Africa policy was more progressive than Barack Obama’s. Trump did not care about Africa,” Lissu observed. But rather than viewing this negatively, he celebrated the fact that under the most recent Republican president, “America’s Africa policy was made by the people working on African issues in the State Department.” He singled out for praise U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Donald J. Wright, a political appointee whose nomination to the job was “criticized at first, but he has been one of the strongest voices in Tanzania” in terms of calling out rights abuses and electoral malfeasance, as opposed to the European Union, which has been “very quiet.”

Lissu also touched on Western governments’ seeming obsession with countering Chinese influence in Africa and rubbished the current approach to doing so.

“You cannot beat China at their own game because they do not care about human rights. They do not care about freedom. They care about making money. But where did Magufuli get most of his money? He got it from Standard Chartered, a British bank. He got it from the World Bank.”

Rather than focus on beating China in business, Lissu said the United States needs to “walk the talk” when it comes to calling out standing up for democracy and human rights. He recommended U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken follow in the path of his predecessor, Secretary Michael Pompeo, who imposed sanctions against “Tanzanian officials responsible for or complicit in undermining” the conduct of free and fair general elections last year.

Lissu also advocated for a reframing of the development relationship between Western countries and Tanzania—the United States has been “supporting Tanzania’s budget since Nyerere was growing socialism from the rooftops”—to better represent a partnership, rather than a donor-recipient setup. “If the United States gives us money, they deserve a say in how it is spent,” Lissu said, before rejecting the false dichotomy evoked by leaders such as Magufuli, whereby “if foreign government give money, they are a development partner, but when they ask what is done with it, they are imperialists.” By using aid to encourage good-governance reforms—and calling out leaders when they fail to fulfill their promises—Lissu believes Tanzania’s “foreign friends” can help nudge the country back onto its upward democratic trajectory.

Biding His Time

While in Belgium, Lissu has remained involved in discussions of Tanzanian politics, offering his time for interviews and hosting a Cyber Lounge on most Fridays to promote discourse on matters of importance in Tanzania.

When asked if he would run for president again, Lissu said he would be “among the contenders” for his party’s primary, but “that is four years away,” and “it is ultimately up to the party to decide” who will be their candidate. On the subject of when he would return to Tanzania, Lissu was unsure: “it is not as simple as packing up my bags and going.”

Amid the uncertainties of his own situation and that of Tanzania’s politics, however, Lissu is unwavering in his focus on achieving his ultimate goal.

“My most important goal is the restoration of democracy in Tanzania.”

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.