Samia Suluhu's 'U-turn' on Covid-19

Tanzania's new President Samia Suluhu Hassan takes oath of office following the death of her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania March 19, 2021. [REUTERS/Stringer]

Barely three weeks in office, President Samia Suluhu Hassan is on a mission to chart her own political path, albeit circumspectly, for a new Tanzania.

Since last week, President Suluhu has surprised many by seeking to change how Tanzania will handle the Covid-19 pandemic going forward, and its relationship with members of the Fourth Estate.

The president yesterday approved the formation of a national task force to examine the country's Covid-19 situation, arguing that Tanzania cannot remain an island in the midst of a global pandemic.

Suluhu, who was speaking during the swearing-in of ministry heads at State House in Dar es Salaam, said the team will give a report on the coronavirus situation in the country.

"We cannot accept everything without thorough research. We have to investigate and get the right report before we can get any assistance from outside. It's unfortunate that when the global statistics of Covid-19 cases are reviewed, for Tanzania, what is seen are just blanks."

The president said there is need for Tanzania to cooperate with other countries to curb the spread of the disease. Tanzania last announced its Covid-19 statistics about one year ago.

The directive could signal a paradigm shift where Tanzanians and their leaders start wearing masks in public and avoid large gatherings.

These preventative measures were missing during the State funeral of President John Magufuli, a Covid-19 skeptic who steered citizens towards traditional medicines and divine intervention as remedies for the disease.

Fatalistic attitude

Magufuli routinely announced that Covid-19 could be kicked out of Tanzania through prayers and fasting. 

"The corona disease has been eliminated thanks to God," he stated.

This attitude put Tanzania at odds with other countries, and the leadership attracted harsh criticism from the World Health Organisation for not taking scientifically proven measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Suluhu also affirmed her administration's commitment to press freedom and civil liberties when she ordered the reopening of all media houses that had been shut down or gagged by the Magufuli administration.

She, however, cautioned media practitioners to be responsible in their reporting. This U-turn gives a respite to journalists whose freedom of expression had been curtailed during Magufuli's tenure.

Until yesterday, all media houses in Tanzania were barred from sharing local content or airing foreign information without approval from the Ministry of Communication. 

Similarly, media outlets were only allowed to meet and share information with foreign journalists in the company of a government official from the Ministry of Communication.

During one occasion in 2017, Magufuli warned journalists that their reporting had limits. "I would like to tell media owners - be careful; watch it. If you think you have that kind of freedom, (it is) not to that extent."

Erick Kabendera, a journalist who had been controversially jailed for seven months before he was freed, said: "Your becoming president means freedom for brave Tanzanian journalists, human rights defenders and politicians who have been harassed, jailed and disappeared from doing their job since 2016. May your presidency mean freedom to all who are living in terror."

Dr Ahmed Hashi, a Horn of Africa commentator, said: "President Suluhu is repairing the damage made by President Magufuli's government. She is quite right to help steer Tanzania towards the right direction."