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New Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan is sworn in at a ceremony at State House, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on March 19, 2021.The Associated Press

Tanzania’s new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, called for patience and unity as she took office in an inauguration ceremony with a 21-gun salute, signalling no early changes of policy by a government that has denied the COVID-19 threat and imposed authoritarian controls on its people.

Ms. Hassan, the former vice-president who was elevated to the highest post after the mystery-cloaked death of former president John Magufuli on Wednesday, becomes the only female head of government in Africa today and the first in her country’s history.

Mr. Magufuli had promoted herbal remedies for COVID-19, mocked the need for masks or virus tests, rejected vaccines, refused to release any data on confirmed cases and claimed to have eliminated the virus from his country last year. Only last month, after many top officials had died or become ill, did he acknowledge that the virus was still circulating.

Mr. Magufuli disappeared from public view in late February and was widely rumoured to be suffering from COVID-19, although his illness was kept secret. Authorities arrested several Tanzanians for mentioning his poor health on social media. He was officially said to have died from a heart condition, but a leading Kenyan newspaper reported on Friday that he had a respiratory illness.

Ms. Hassan, a 61-year-old Muslim from the island of Zanzibar and a veteran of the ruling party, praised Mr. Magufuli as her mentor and showed no signs of moving away from his policies in her inaugural speech on Friday. Few people were seen with face masks at the ceremony, an early indication that his policies remain in place.

“This is a time to bury our differences and be one as a nation,” Ms. Hassan told the ceremony. “This is not a time for finger-pointing, but it is a time to hold hands and move forward together.”

Under the constitution, she will serve the remainder of Mr. Magufuli’s second term, which expires in 2025.

Tanzania has long been a favourite of Western donors, with Canada providing more than $2.38-billion in development aid to the East African country since the 1960s, but it has moved in a sharply authoritarian direction since Mr. Magufuli rose to power in 2015. Many journalists and opposition activists have been arrested or attacked, protests have been banned, media outlets have been shut down and some opposition leaders were forced into exile.

Zitto Kabwe, a prominent Tanzanian opposition leader, said it is too early to tell whether Ms. Hassan will shift away from her predecessor’s policies. The absence of face masks at her inauguration was “disappointing, but I hope it will change,” Mr. Kabwe told The Globe and Mail on Friday.

He said he is waiting to see who is appointed to key posts in her new government, including cabinet posts and the vice-presidency. “Then I will be able to say if my hopes are real or just illusions,” he said.

Thabit Jacob, a Tanzania expert at Roskilde University in Denmark, said Ms. Hassan’s future could be decided by factional battles within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party.

“In the next few months, there will be a huge battle to control her,” Mr. Jacob told an interviewer on Democracy in Africa, a website on African politics.

In the short term, no major changes should be expected, he said. “She will be very much controlled by the dominant Magufuli faction. She’ll have to struggle to create her own base, before thinking of broader national issues.”

But the new President should not be underestimated, he said. “People who know her say she’s very smart, she’s reserved and she can be tough when needed.”


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