Tanzania’s main opposition party held its first mass rally since a ban was lifted in 2016 on Saturday, raising hopes of greater political freedom in the east African nation.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan this month lifted the ban on Chadema imposed by her hard-line predecessor, John Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his fighting style.
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Hassan, who has been in power for 22 months, is trying to break with some of Magufuli’s policies and has reached out to the opposition.
“Thank God the day has come when we speak to other Tanzanians at this public gathering,” Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe said at the rally, attended by thousands in the lakeside town of Mwanza.
The rally marked the 30th anniversary of the party’s political registration.
Supporters wore party colors – blue, red and white – and sang songs praising their leaders while a handful of police officers guarded the venue.
“We have been silent for almost seven years but finally our rights have been restored and we are ready to move on,” Mwanza resident Mary Dismas told AFP.
The move was cautiously welcomed by right-wing groups and the country’s opposition as a win for democracy.
Magufuli had banned political rallies earlier in his tenure, saying it was time for work, not politics.
But critics said the ban only applied to opposition groups, with the ruling party free to assemble.
Rival assemblies were violently dispersed by the police and detained party officials.
“2023 is an important year”
There was optimism early on as Hassan, Tanzania’s first female president, turned on rivals, reopened banned media outlets and reversed some of Magufuli’s most controversial policies.
However, her presidency came under criticism when Mbowe and other senior Chadema officials were arrested in July 2021, just hours before they were due to hold a public meeting to seek constitutional reforms.
Hassan, who has fought splits in her ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, has since made conciliatory gestures towards the opposition.
In early 2022, she met in Brussels with Chadema deputy leader Tundu Lissu, who was the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election but is living in exile in Belgium after an attempt on his life in 2017.
Lissu said last week that he would return to Tanzania on January 25, expressing optimism that “2023 is an important year in our country’s history.”
His party comrade Mbowe, who has spent seven months in prison on terrorism charges, led Saturday’s rally organized in the port city where they were arrested.
“Our reconciliation talks with the President have been fruitful because even the police who arrested me in Mwanza are guarding our meeting today,” Mbowe said, asking supporters to applaud the officers “for their good work”.
The 61-year-old praised Hassan but said calls for a new constitution and an independent electoral body are now high on the party’s agenda.
“I deeply appreciate President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s tolerance during our call for reconciliation…some people would like to hear me insult them, but I never will.”
Tanzania’s constitution, adopted in 1977, has been amended more than ten times, including a provision introducing a multi-party system.
Previous attempts to change the Basic Law stalled in 2014 when opposition pressures for reform met government crackdowns.
Chadema officials said Saturday a series of grassroots rallies had been called.
“We will organize as many rallies as possible to reach all districts and villages in the country,” said Sharifa Suleiman, acting leader of Chadema’s women’s wing.
“This is our time to prepare the ground for (the) 2025 elections,” she said.
Another official, Hashim Juma Issa, said the party was “turning a new page” as it celebrated its 30th anniversary.
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