Samia Suluhu Hassan becomes Tanzania's first woman president

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Tanzania's new president Samia Suluhu Hassan, center-right, inspects the guard of honor after being sworn in at a ceremony at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Friday, March 19, 2021. Samia Suluhu Hassan made history Friday when she was sworn in as Tanzania's first female president, following the death of her predecessor John Magufuli. (AP Photo)

DAR ES SALAAM – Samia Suluhu Hassan made history Friday when she was sworn in as Tanzania’s first female president after the death of her controversial predecessor, John Magufuli, who denied that COVID-19 is a problem in the East African country.

Wearing a hijab and holding up a Quran with her right hand, the 61-year-old Hassan took the oath of office at State House, the government offices in Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.

The inauguration was witnessed by Cabinet members, former presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Jakaya Kikwete. The former heads of state were among the few people in the room wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19.

Hassan succeeds Magufuli, who had not been seen in public for more than two weeks before his passing was announced on state TV late Wednesday. Magufuli had denied that COVID-19 was a problem in Tanzania, saying that national prayer had eradicated the disease from the country. But Magufuli acknowledged weeks before his death that the virus was a danger.

A major test of Hassan’s new presidency will be how she deals with the pandemic. Under Magufuli, Tanzania, one of Africa’s most populous countries with 60 million people, made no efforts to obtain vaccines or promote the use of masks and social distancing to combat the virus. This policy of ignoring the disease endangers neighboring countries, African health officials warn.

Although Hassan announced that Magufuli died of heart failure, exiled opposition leader Tundu Lissu says the president died of COVID-19, citing informed medical sources in Dar es Salaam.

“The immediate job, the immediate decision she has to make, and she doesn’t have much time for it, is what is she going to do about COVID-19?" Lissu told The Associated Press at his place of exile in Belgium.

“President Magufuli defied the world, defied science, defied common sense in his approach to COVID-19 and it finally brought him down,” said Lissu.