Finally the real Samia stands up!
How the Maasai are paying a price for our gender blind spot
While the world is looking on with horror at what the government of Samia Suluhu Hassan is perpetuating against the Maasai people in Ngorongoro, it should recognize that it is partly at fault. Because everyone was keen to buy in and perpetuate, without any proof whatsoever, the narrative that Samia Suluhu was a better, more empathic and democratic leader than Magufuli, simply by virtue of being a woman. Notably, the international community led by Kristalina Georgieva, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Kamala Harris, etc. rushed to pour unearned praise on Samia Suluhu with little or no evidence of reforms, obliging her with photo-ops and making her one of Time’s top 100 influential people.
Samia Suluhu Hassan is the product of the CCM ruling party. She rose, with little distinction and achievement, in the ranks by being a good and loyal cadre. She was the deputy to John Magufuli for six years. In 2020 she had the option of running for the Presidency of Zanzibar but chose to remain at his side. After his death, many were quick to push the narrative that she had been sidelined and hadn’t agreed to Magufuli’s atrocities and human rights violations. Again, no evidence, just words that we had to take at face value, because she is a woman.
The one thing she did right, reversing Magufuli’s Covid denialist policies, is constantly brought up to confirm her reformist credential. However, everything she did wrong, from illegally prosecuting and imprisoning members of the opposition, most notably Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe, the booting out of Speaker of Parliament Job Ndugai, to the threats against the media and civil society had to be forgiven because she had to balance various factions and entrenched interests. Her vicious segregationist rhetoric against the Maasai were also ignored.
Thus, a selective and false narrative centered around gender led to the unprecedented boldness of Samia Suluhu, to cross a line that no other President not even Magufuli had dared cross, namely: to forcibly and with extreme prejudice evict the Maasai from their ancestral land. On our weekly #MariaSpaces on Twitter, the Maasai community had warned for months about this impending disaster. The Maasai and activists wrote reports, articles, statements appealing to the world to intervene. Sadly, even now, after blood had been spilled, the reaction is muted. Diplomats in Dar es Salaam and even the international media (much respect to the few exception) are keeping quiet; probably ashamed to admit that they had been praising a leader who has even less qualms about disenfranchising, dispossessing and slaughtering her people than her bloody tyrant predecessor.
Though Ngorongoro and particularly Loliondo have been a festering wound since the presidency of Ali Hassan Mwinyi in the 80s, this current barbarism is hers and hers alone. She is on record repeatedly calling for the removal of the Maasai and threatening human rights defenders from defending them. She has methodically demeaned them and perpetuated false narratives against them, notably in the infamous Royal Tour documentary produced by Peter Greenberg.
Now the Maasai are being persecuted, hundreds have fled to Kenya, their leaders have been charged with murder (though they had been illegally detained before the shootings started and been held incommunicado for over 10 days by the government). The State is using the usual rhetoric and propaganda we saw under Magufuli — labeling activists and civil society organizations as puppets of foreign interest, the main culprit now being Kenya. The latest: immigration officers have descended on Arusha to “investigate the citizenship” of CSO leaders.
So, we are back where we started — media and civil society silenced and intimidated by the same laws that Magufuli (and his VP) had passed, leaders jailed on trumped up charges, people being tormented by their own government and seeking refuge abroad. The international donor and diplomatic community needs to lose its misconceptions and wrong assumptions about leadership and gender; and see Samia Suluhu Hassan for what she is: a tyrant, no less dangerous or destructive than Magufuli. We need to debunk the fake narrative that Tanzania is undergoing reforms just because, by divine intervention, the president happens to be a woman. We need to go back to where we left off with Magufuli and work our way toward a truly free and democratic Tanzania.
By the way, just to be clear, the violence against the Maasai is a forewarning of what is going to come in 2025. If Samia, her acolytes and party are willing to go this far to dispossess the Maasai, imagine the extremes they will be capable of to remain in power.
The whole world is fascinated by the Maasai — wear their outfits and jewelry as well as appreciate their culture. Now, it is time for everyone, and especially for people with political, social, economic, and cultural influence, to stand with the Maasai in Tanzania.