In our series of letters from African journalists, Sammy Awami looks back at how Tanzania has changed in the year since Samia Suluhu Hassan became the country’s first female president following the death of President John Magufuli.
If a happiness index was taken within the last few weeks, it would have shown Tanzanians to be the happiest people in the world, according to some Tanzanians on social media.Within the past few weeks, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, widely known as just Mama Samia, met the two leading figures of the opposition party Chadema, Tundu Lissu and Freeman Mbowe – meetings that would have been unimaginable just over a year ago.
Mr Lissu is living in exile after he was shot 16 times in 2017 in an assassination attempt widely believed to have been politically motivated. Mr Mbowe has just been released from jail, where he was held on terrorism charges since his arrest last July ahead of a public rally to demand constitutional reform.
“You should see the smile on my face. Definitely warms the heart. A true leader. Unmatched in her league #ServantLeadership,” tweeted Sara Ezra Teri, hours after news broke of the meeting between President Samia and Mr Lissu in Belgium.
Lawyer and prominent activist Fatma Karume tweeted: “I am PROUD of you, SSH [Samia Suluhu Hassan]. Lissu proud of you too.”
A year ago, Tanzania was a very different place.
Then-President John Magufuli believed the opposition were puppets of foreign interests. His only language towards the opposition was force, and he made it his mission to eliminate multiparty politics.
That things have changed is agreed across the political divide.
“I’m not a cheerleader, [but] there are things which Mama [Samia] has started to do well. And because she has been doing well, we will support her to do them better,” Mr Lissu said.
What is contested, however, is whether President Samia can take full credit for these changes. Tanzania plunged into authoritarianism under the same ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), that she now chairs.
She was the vice-president in a government that worked hard to eliminate the opposition and sent people to jail for simply criticising it. Many kidnappings and forced disappearances, widely allegedly to be politically motivated, happened under the government where she was second-in-command.
There is also the question of how far is she willing to go to institutionalise the reforms which are currently taking place. Many of them appear to be based merely on the president’s goodwill.
For instance, while meeting opposition politicians is a significant step towards building trust, the controversial Political Parties Act remains unchanged. This gives the registrar of political parties wide and vague powers to de-register parties and hand up to a year in jail to anyone engaging in unauthorised civic education, such as encouraging voter registration.
Likewise, while bans on several media outlets have been lifted, the 2016 Media Services Act, the 2018 Online Content Regulations and the 2015 Cybercrimes Act that enhanced censorship and threatened individuals and media companies with sanctions such as suspension and closure of outlets are still in force.
What President Samia has achieved so far is to put the brakes on a fast descent into total authoritarianism. She has returned the country to the pre-2015 era, but has done little to alter the institutional structures which enabled her predecessor to crack down on dissent so completely.
These moves towards a more tolerant type of politics suggest that the president wants to make changes. But her actions hint that she is torn between pursuing reforms and keeping the party she leads in power. For example, the opposition politicians she has met still face restrictions if they want to hold rallies.
However, there is a sense that these changes will last. This optimism is drawn from the belief that President Samia has now fully consolidated her grip on the ruling party.
In the first few months after Mr Magufuli’s death, she had to remind her audience that as a female president she was still worthy of respect and trust. Back then, ministers tended to only partly carry out her directives.
Her growing authority is probably best illustrated by the release of Mr Mbowe – whose prosecution was pursued for eight months despite a lack of evidence and widespread calls to drop the case.
It is believed it was dropped in the end because she stood up to some remaining Magufuli loyalists who resisted some of her reforms.
Some liken the ongoing changes to the era of former President Jakaya Kikwete, who was one of Mrs Samia’s mentors and Mr Magufuli’s predecessor.
His leadership style was conciliatory, and political differences with the opposition were often resolved through dialogue over a cup of tea and nibbles at state house. As a result, the government tended not to enforce repressive laws.
This impression is backed by the return of the so-called liberal economic policies. Foreign investors are being actively wooed, Western donors are now regarded as development partners as opposed to imperialists or “mabeberu”, loosely translated as male goats – a disparaging term used by Mr Magufuli.
With her roots in collaborative activism and growing up in Zanzibar, where there is a culture of humility and hospitality, it is not surprising she has a different leadership style.
But she could face significant resistance from the CCM if she, for example, agreed to a referendum on constitutional reforms, a long-standing demand of the opposition and pro-democracy activists, as it could disadvantage her party by loosening its absolute grip on power.
President Samia took office in extraordinary circumstances, in a country and political system dominated by patriarchal attitudes which were promoted by her predecessor.
In one public address, former President Magufuli jokingly fantasised about beating up resistant women, while in an other he made sexual remarks about a Member of Parliament over her light skin. He received applause on both occasions.
One year later, President Samia has succeeded in reviving hopes of a fresh start.
However, the true measure of her intent to make lasting changes lies in the speed and extent of legal and institutional reforms which would not only cement her legacy but also protect Tanzanians’ freedoms, and shield the
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release: ‘If any couple is going to survive this, it’s them’
This week Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was finally reunited with her husband and daughter in the UK after years of detention in Iran. Now comes the task of rebuilding their lives – but the BBC’s Caroline Hawley, who has been in touch with the family throughout their ordeal, says the bond between them has already helped them endure the darkest of times.
It’s exactly six years since Richard Ratcliffe stood at Gatwick Airport, waving goodbye to his wife.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was flying to Iran – taking their daughter Gabriella to see her grandparents. Richard had no reason to believe they wouldn’t be back home a couple of weeks later.
“It was a slightly rushed goodbye,” he once told me. “Gabriella at the time was one and three quarters and a bit of a handful. I was just really wishing her good luck with the flight.”
Earlier this week, Nazanin stepped off a plane at RAF Brize Norton. After years of detention, she and fellow British-Iranian Anoosheh Ashoori were finally coming home. A little voice asked: “Is that Mummy?”
Then Gabriella, now aged seven, rushed to hug her mother.
And yet at that moment, Richard, who must have wished with all his heart to run forward and hold Nazanin too, hung back.
The kind, gentle accountant – who waged such a steely campaign to get his wife home – allowed Gabriella to run first into her mother’s arms, as Nazanin sobbed loudly with relief.
Their story is one of any ordinary family caught in the middle of murky international politics; a long-overdue British debt to Iran; and diplomatic manoeuvrings about as far from their usual lives as it’s possible to imagine.
It’s a story of separation.
But, at its heart, it’s a story about the power of love – the love of a mother for her child, a husband for his wife. And one man’s extraordinary single-minded dedication to getting his wife back.
“He showed us what love really means,” says Tulip Siddiq, the couple’s MP who has become a friend to them, too.
On Thursday, their first morning together after the reunion started with Richard making Nazanin a cup of tea. Then came a walk in the park with Gabriella as they began the process of rediscovering each other.
“I don’t think he’d mind me saying that there’s a kind of shyness, of getting to know each other again – a bit like when you first start dating,” Ms Siddiq tells me.
“He kept saying ‘baby steps’ when I spoke to him about his relationship with Nazanin. But he just sounds 10 years younger now.”
When Richard and Nazanin first met, he immediately felt so comfortable with her, he later described it as “like coming home”. It was 2007 and they were introduced by a mutual friend at an academic conference.
“She transformed his life when she came along,” says Richard’s younger sister, Rebecca.
“He just dotes on her. She’s everything to him. And you can see why – she’s so beautiful and lovely.”
Nazanin and Richard married two years after they met – first in a register office and then at a more traditional Iranian celebration. Then in 2014, Gabriella was born.
“When they were both taken from him, it was the darkest time of his life. So there was no choice [for him] but to keep fighting for them,” Rebecca Ratcliffe says.
Richard’s extraordinary campaign buoyed Nazanin in the darkest days of her incarceration, when she was feeling suicidal, according to Ms Siddiq – even when prison guards taunted Nazanin that her husband’s act of love would only earn her more years in jail.
“Nazanin always said to me that she held her head up high because she was proud that her husband was there and campaigning for her and it gave her the strength to keep going,” Ms Siddiq says.
At the start of her imprisonment, Nazanin told doctors, when she was in solitary confinement with the lights always on, her interrogators taunted her that Richard was having affairs and that they had photographic evidence.
One of her female guards used to talk loudly to her own child just outside Nazanin’s cell. “It was unbearable,” Nazanin said. “I dreaded her shifts as I knew she would do that to torture me.”
The hardest part for Nazanin was being separated from Gabriella, who she had only just stopped breastfeeding when she was arrested. There was the mother’s guilt of not being able to care for her child.
In 2017, she wrote to Gabriella – nicknamed Gisou – from Evin Prison in Tehran: “Forgive me for all the nights I was not by your side to hold your warm little hand till you fall asleep.
“You, I and your father will never succumb to this hurricane of fate. The love we share knows no boundaries or walls. It is our life. There will come a day that we will be able to live anew all the days of our life.
“My Gisou, there will come a day that we will be together again and tenderly hold one another’s loving hands.”
On Thursday, that day finally came. Gabriella slept in a bed between her parents for the first time since she was a baby.
Nazanin has told Tulip Siddiq that her daughter has been attached to her ever since “like an extra limb”.
For husband and wife, they must learn to live with each other again. Their flat is a “pigsty”, laughs Rebecca Ratcliffe, cluttered with campaign materials.
“They’re different people than they were six years ago,” she says.
“They have had very traumatic but separate experiences and they need to come together and rebuild their relationship. And there’s also the challenge of co-parenting again.”
Over the past few years, they’ve wondered if they still have time to have another child – Nazanin will be 44 on Boxing Day.
Richard, talking tenderly about Nazanin to me last year, admitted: “I don’t think I can possibly understand what she’s gone through.” He knows there will be “bumpy” times ahead.
But for the moment being together is all that matters.
A short tweet from Richard, with a picture of the three of them embracing, summed the reunion up: “No place like home. Thank-you to everyone who made this possible… You have made us whole.”
“Whatever devils there are, they both know they love each other,” Rebecca Ratcliffe says. “If any couple is going to survive this experience, it’s them.”