Harris Enters The Fray Over Democracy With Visit To Tanzania

Vice President Kamala Harris talks with Tanzania's Vice President Philip Mpango as she arrives at the Julius Nyerere Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Wednesday, March 29, 2023, the second stop of a three-nation tour of Africa. (Emmanuel Herman/Pool Photo via AP)


— U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday encouraged Tanzania’s fragile progress toward a more inclusive government as she stepped onto the front lines of America’s push to strengthen democracy in Africa.

Standing alongside Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania’s first female president, Harris cited recent decisions from Tanzania such as lifting a ban on opposition rallies and encouraging more press freedom as “important and meaningful steps” toward democratic reforms in the country. Hassan has undone some of Tanzania’s more oppressive policies even though she came to power as a member of the ruling party.

“The United States will continue to work alongside democratic governments in support of democratic aspiration and the democratic aspirations in particular of the people of this continent,” Harris said.

The two leaders planned to discuss matters of good government, long-term economic growth in Tanzania and the climate crisis.

Hassan noted Tanzania’s participation in a virtual summit on democracy hosted by the White House this week, saying it “sends a clear message that the fathers of democracy recognize our efforts in building a democratic nation.”

She added that the meeting between the two female leaders was “another milestone,” saying that it would be an “inspiration and a testimony to Tanzanian young girls.”

Hassan is finishing out the term of President John Magufuli, who earned a reputation for stamping out dissent, arresting critics and forcing them into exile, before he died in office. Hard-liners have been uncomfortable with some of Hassan’s changes, however, which could cost her in the next election two years from now.

Yet the meeting between Hassan and Harris, the first woman to serve as U.S. vice president, was a noteworthy show of support from Washington as the United States deepens its outreach to Africa. Harris announced $560 million in U.S. assistance for Tanzania, some of which will require congressional approval. The money is intended to expand the two countries’ trade relationship, as well as encourage democratic governance.

“There’s so much excitement here, and people are saying it’s like Madam President’s efforts in changing the country are being rewarded with recognition from an economic and political superpower that is the U.S.,” said Tanzania-based analyst Mohamed Issa Hemed.

During a previous meeting in Washington, Harris told Hassan that “we welcome the progress that you have made during the course of your leadership and, in particular, the work you have done to empower women leaders in Tanzania and the work you have done to support human rights.”

The encounter with Hassan will provide Harris with another opportunity to highlight women’s issues in Africa, something she’s done repeatedly over the course of her trip. During her previous stop in Ghana, Harris met with female entrepreneurs and said women need leadership opportunities.

The future, Harris said, should be a place “where women are not just treated equally but are able to thrive.”

“These conversations are very important,” she said at the Mix Design Hub, a modern building that features a restaurant, an art gallery and a co-working space. “Because the well-being of women will be a reflection of the well-being of all of society.”

After her meeting with Hassan on Thursday, Harris plans to visit a memorial to the U.S. embassy bombings that occurred in Tanzania and in neighboring Kenya in 1998. Her office said she will meet with staff who still work at the embassy in Dar es Salaam, a quarter-century after the attack that killed 12 people there and wounded 77.

Harris arrived in Tanzania late Wednesday after spending three nights in Ghana. Much like at her first stop, she was greeted with music and dancing as she walked down a red carpet that was rolled out to Air Force 2. Some of the welcoming party wore shirts with Harris’ face and skirts featuring Hassan.

Harris is scheduled to spend two nights in Tanzania, then conclude her weeklong trip with a stop in Zambia, another country that is striving to strengthen its democracy. She plans to return to Washington on Sunday.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria, said Harris’ visit can help galvanize enthusiasm when there are concerns over backsliding into authoritarianism in Africa and around the world.

“Many people will want the U.S. to speak to the issue of democracy, which they feel is beginning to decline and is not what it used to be,” she said. “There are more that need to be assured that democracy is here to stay.”

Like Tanzania, Zambia has made uneven steps toward democracy since its independence. However, there’s been a burst of hope after the country elected Hakainde Hichilema, a former opposition leader who once faced charges of treason.

Zambia has since decriminalized defamation of the president, a law that was used to stifle opposition. It’s also serving as a co-host of President Joe Biden’s second Summit for Democracy this week.

However, Hichilema warned this week that economic progress is necessary to sustain open societies.

“You can’t eat democracy,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “Human rights may sustain the spirit but not the body.”


Musambi reported from Nairobi, Kenya. Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report from Washington.