Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan made history on Friday, 19 March, when she was sworn in as the country’s first female president after the sudden death of John Magufuli from an illness shrouded in mystery.
Wearing a bright red headscarf, Hassan was sworn in as the country’s sixth president, at a ceremony in Dar es Salaam, where neither she nor the majority of attendees wore a mask, in the Covid-sceptic nation.
“I, Samia Suluhu Hassan, promise to be honest, obey and protect the constitution of Tanzania,” said the new president, as she took the oath of office before inspecting troops at a military parade and receiving a cannon salute.
She becomes the only other current female head of state in Africa alongside Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, whose role is mainly ceremonial.
But questions have been raised over the true cause of his death, after multiple rumours that Magufuli one of the world’s most fervent Covid-sceptic leaders had caught the virus and had sought treatment abroad.
Tanzania’s main opposition leader Tundu Lissu insisted his sources said Magufuli had Covid-19 and had actually died a week ago.
In her brief and sombre address, Hassan called for unity. “This is a time to bury our differences and stand united as a country. This is not a time for finger-pointing, but it’s a time to hold hands and move forward together,” she said, addressing a crowd of current and former officials that included two former presidents and uniformed military officers.
The main question hanging over the new president is whether she will usher in a change in leadership style from her predecessor, a brash populist nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for muscling through policies and who drew criticism for his intolerance of dissent.
Magufuli leaves behind a complex legacy, after a swing to authoritarianism which saw his crackdown on the media, activists and free speech while refusing to take any measures against Covid-19.
Analysts say Hassan will face early pressure from powerful Magufuli allies within the party, who dominate intelligence and other critical aspects of government, and would try and steer her decisions and agenda.
Hailing from Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island in the Indian Ocean, Hassan rose through the ranks over a 20-year political career from local government to the national assembly.
A ruling party stalwart, she was named Magufuli’s running mate in the 2015 presidential campaign. The pair were re-elected in October last year in a disputed poll marred by allegations of irregularities.
Hassan must consult the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) about appointing a new vice president. The party is set to hold a special meeting of its central committee on Saturday.
Tanzania is observing a 14-day mourning period and details on Magufuli’s funeral have yet to be announced.
Magufuli is the second East African leader to die under mysterious circumstances.
Burundi’s equally Covid-sceptic leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, died from “heart failure” last June after his wife was flown to Nairobi to be treated for coronavirus.