1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

End row on Tanzania's President Samia's titles

Grace Kabogo
Grace Kabogo
March 27, 2021

No sooner had Samia Suluhu Hassan been sworn in as Tanzania's first female leader did people start debating whether to call her "Mama Samia." Mama shows respect and doesn't reduce presidential powers, says Grace Kabogo.

Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan has allayed fears that she is not fit for office because she is a womanImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Some Tanzanians have opted to address President Samia Suluhu Hassan as "mama" — a Kiswahili word for mother. Others argue that people should not use such a word to describe the country's leader — after all, former male presidents were not referred to as fathers. Either way, no one should be misconstrued as being disrespectful for calling the new Tanzanian head of state Mama Samia.

A mother is a leader, caretaker, humble, gentle and one who loves her children. However, some women activists believe that when it comes to leadership within the context of the country's constitution, laws and regulations, the word mother should not exist.

Some claim that women have long been fighting for equality to remove patriarchy from society. When people invoke motherhood, we remain stagnant in self-identification using the "female" gender. However, this discussion is, for me, a no-brainer.

Mama Samia since days of the vice presidency

The term Mama Samia is not new. Since she became the deputy to the late President John Pombe Magufuli in 2015, people have always addressed her as Mama Samia. I have never heard her complain or disparage anyone for using that title. But still, some say she should be called mama at home, but at work, it should be Her Excellency, President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

DW Kiswahili - Grace Kabogo
Grace Kabogo is an editor at DW's Kiswahili DeskImage: DW/L. Richardson

It is strange for Tanzania, because this is the first time the East African nation has a female president. This epic political development reportedly made some critics question her leadership capability. The new president has been quick to dismiss those aspersions.

During her speech at Magufuli's state funeral in Dodoma on March 22, Samia reaffirmed her willingness and readiness to lead the nation. "For those who are skeptical on whether this woman will be able to be the president of Tanzania, I want to assure you that I'm standing here as the president. I repeat, I'm standing here as the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, and I am a woman," she stressed.

Tanzania's first president, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, is to this day fondly referred to as Mwalimu Nyerere. Mwalimu is a Kiswahili word for teacher. Was this an insult to him? Was this word disrespectful to the president? Of course not! What's more, Africa's first democratically elected female head of state, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is often described as the "Mother of Liberia."

How to address the commander in chief?

Apart from the word mama, another controversy on how to address President Samia is whether to use the term commander in chief. According to the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania of 1977, Article 33 (1) and (2), there shall be a "President of the United Republic of Tanzania, who shall be the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces."

In Kiswahili, the term for commander in chief  is "Amiri Jeshi Mkuu." The word Amiri is derived from the Arabic language and loosely translates to leader or commander. Since the Kiswahili language does not have masculine or feminine forms, use of the term has caused a heated debate. Some have said President Samia should carry the title "Amirat Jeshi Mkuu" or "Amira Jeshi Mkuu," but not "Amiri Jeshi Mkuu."

On Friday, as the nation laid Magufuli, to rest Tanzania's chief of defense forces, General Venance Mabeyo, ended the row saying President Samia will also be known as Amiri Jeshi Mkuu.

How will Tanzania remember John Magufuli?

I don't think calling President Samia the country's Amiri Jeshi Mkuu or commander in chief has any connotation with a male presidency. We should not complicate matters, but rather borrow a leaf from Kiswahili which has no gender.

The use of surnames

If that wasn't enough, another issue is the use of the leader's name. In the past, all our former male presidents were known by their last names. For example, President Nyerere, President Mwinyi, President Kikwete and the rest. Now that we have a female president, should we call her President Samia or Her Excellency, President Hassan? Addressing her by her surname, could without a doubt, make it sound as if the president is male.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania inspecting a guard of honor.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan is also Tanzania's commander in chiefImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Regarding the title, should it be Her Excellency or President Samia or Mama Samia or Madam Samia? Do we need to get directives from the government officials about this issue, or will it depend on the citizens themselves?

I think every Tanzanian should be free to call the president as he or she sees fit, as long as they don't cross the red line and her title, dignity and honor remain intact. That is to say, president and commander in chief of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Back to mama: this is a word of great honor, but it will not make sense at all if Tanzania is not united, if it doesn't have democracy freedom of expression or if the president doesn't amend oppressive laws and reach out to the opposition. The word mama will be honored if she respects the constitution and moves the country forward. At the end of the day, Tanzanians will judge her not by how good she was as a mother, but by her performance and how she led the country.

Calling her mama or not doesn't make her presidency more male. Our first president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was also referred to as "Baba wa Taifa," meaning Father of the Nation. I have nothing against calling our first female president "Mama wa Taifa" — Mother of the Nation.