Tanzania’s main opposition party on Saturday held its first rally since a ban was lifted in 2016, raising hope for more political freedom in the east African country.
President Samia Solo Hassan this month lifted a ban on Chadema slapped by her hardline predecessor John Magufuli, who dubbed him a “bulldozer” for his rowdy manner.
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Hassan, who has been in power for 22 months, is seeking to break away from some of Magufuli’s policies and has made overtures to the opposition.
“Thank God the day has come when we talk to Tanzanians through this public gathering,” Chadema President Freeman Mboye said at the gathering attended by thousands in the lakeside town of Mwanza.
The rally came on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the party’s political registration.
Fans dressed in the ceremony’s 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 nearly seven years, but in the end our rights have been restored and we are ready to move on,” Marie Dismas, from Mwanza, told AFP.
The move was greeted cautiously as a boon for democracy by rights groups and the country’s opposition.
Magufuli had banned political rallies early in his tenure, saying it was time for action, not politics.
But critics said the ban applied only to opposition groups, with the ruling party free to assemble.
Rival rallies were violently broken up by police and jailed party officials.
‘2023 is an important year’
There was early optimism when Hassan, Tanzania’s first woman president, reached out to her rivals, reopening banned media and reversing some of Magufuli’s most controversial policies.
But her presidency came under fire when Mbowe and other senior officials were arrested in Chadema in July 2021 just hours before a public meeting seeking constitutional reforms was to be held.
Hassan, who has battled divisions in her ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, has made conciliatory gestures toward the opposition.
In early 2022, she met in Brussels with Vice President Chadema Tondo Lessou, who was the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium after an attempt on his life in 2017.
Lesu said last week that he would return to Tanzania on January 25, expressing optimism that “2023 is an important year in the history of our country.”
Comrade Mboye, who has spent seven months in jail on terrorism charges, led a rally on Saturday in the port city where they were arrested.
“Our conversation has resulted in reconciliation with the president 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”.
A new constitution
While praising Hassan, the 61-year-old said demanding a new constitution and an independent electoral commission is now high on the party’s agenda.
“I greatly appreciate President Samia Solo Hassan’s forgiveness during our talk for reconciliation… Some people want to hear me insult her but I will never do that.”
Adopted in 1977, Tanzania’s constitution has been amended more than 10 times, including with a provision to introduce a multi-party system.
Previous attempts to change the Basic Law stalled in 2014, as opposition efforts for reforms were met with government repression.
Shedima officials said on Saturday that a series of grassroots rallies had been organized.
“We will organize as many marches as possible to reach all the wards and villages in the country,” said Sharifa Suleiman, the caretaker of the women’s wing in Shdima.
“This is our time to build the groundwork for the 2025 elections,” she said.
Another official, Hashim Juma Issa, said the party “opens a new page” as it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
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