Late on 17 March, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced on state broadcaster TBC that President John Magufuli had passed away from heart complications at a Dar es Salaam hospital. Ending nearly three weeks of speculation over the president’s health and whereabouts, Magufuli’s passing will usher in a political transition, which should be constitutionally straightforward but could be politically messy. At best, the change of power will allow for a reversal of Magufuli’s controversial pandemic policies and perhaps a loosening of his dirigiste economic policies in the long run.
The constitution provides for a relatively straightforward transition of power in the event of the president’s death: the vice-president is to be sworn in as president for the remainder of the five-year term (which, in this case, runs until 2025). Suluhu should therefore be catapulted to the top of Tanzanian politics – an unprecedented development because she would not only be the country’s first female president but would also be the very first head of state to hail from the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, rather than mainland Tanzania.
Suluhu’s role as VP, which she has held since 2015, was probably never intended as a stepping stone to the top job. Her only previous experience in mainland politics was as minister of state in the vice-president’s office. However, Magufuli’s aversion to foreign travel meant she was often Tanzania’s highest-ranking representative abroad, be it at the UN, the African Union (AU), or the East African Community (EAC). Her first decade in political office (2000-2010) was spent on Zanzibar, where she served as minister of youth employment, women and children development, and later as minister for tourism, trade, and investment.
Suluhu is not considered popular with different Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party factions. She may face particular opposition from Magufuli’s populist camp and mainland Christian nationalists. However, she might gain some support from the faction of former president Jakaya Kikwete, especially from Muslim communities. At worst, Magufuli’s faction could try to remove Suluhu from the succession process and replace her with the leader constitutionally next in line (the speaker of parliament, followed by the chief justice).
Assuming that Suluhu prevails, the selection of her vice-presidential replacement will become the focus of politicking. She would consult on the VP candidate with the CCM Central Committee (CC), which would then need to be confirmed by parliament. Rumors are that former attorney-general Andrew Chenge (implicated in a high-profile corruption case by the UK Serious Fraud Office in 2008) could become vice-president to secure support from the Magufuli faction. There are even rumors that Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa Majaliwa, an outsider appointment by Magufuli in 2015, could be replaced with CCM MP and possible future presidential contender January Makamba in a bid to appeal to younger constituencies.
As a result, concerns over Suluhu’s political weakness may prevail, particularly if the center of decision-making shifted from State House towards the CCM and the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services (TISS). Still, Magufuli’s exit could provide the first tentative opportunity for a political reset within the CCM, on which the populist president has had a Trump-like stranglehold. At best, Magufuli’s departure could trigger a course correction of his denialist Covid-19 policies and perhaps, after a period of uncertainty and factional realignments, of his radical ‘Ujamaa’-inspired economic policies.