Tanzania: Samia Frees More Political Space
By Mutayoba Arbogast
Away from the global and continental headlines, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan is slowly pushing Tanzania towards an all-encompassing developmental trajectory. From the political sphere to the economic and social fronts, Tanzania has recorded some great positives since President Hassan assumed power after the death of Pombe John Magufuli. Starting 2023 on a high, President Hassan lifted the blanket ban on the activities of all opposition parties.
During the tenure of the late Pombe John Magufuli, political space was shrinking massively owing to his intolerance of divergent views. One such thing which demonstrates this is Magufuli’s decision to impose a blanket ban on opposition political parties. The ban encompassed prohibiting the organising of political activities and rallies.
In imposing the ban, then-President Magufuli justified the decision saying it paved the way for all forces in the country to focus on developing the nation as a unified front. He stated that the ban would only be in place till the electioneering period started in 2020. The ban however was left in place even after the stated period into President Hassan’s term.
Noble as it was, at least according to President Magufuli who implemented the ban, the ban restricted political freedom and became a tool to silence any criticism labelled against the government. As reported by Mutayoba Arbogast, the ban was selectively applied and it resulted in “repeated arrests of some opposition leaders and supporters, journalists and activists”.
Even though the ban was condemned by various international groups including Amnesty International which said “What we have seen in Tanzania post-election intended to suppress dissent. Criticising the conduct of an election is not a crime” after the 2020 elections, the ban was carried over into the tenure of President Hassan. As recently as July 2021, the ban was used to arrest and detain Freeman Mbowe, the Chairperson of CHADEMA, the main opposition party in Tanzania. Mbowe was released several months later in March 2022.
Perhaps in what can only be described as a Damascus moment, President Hassan on 3 January 2023 while addressing political parties’ representatives announced that “My presence before you is to announce that the ban has been lifted and all political parties have rights to politics according to the law. We want positive criticism – criticism that will build the nation and not a personal attack”.
President Hassan went on to state that it is the responsibility of the government of the day to grant all freedoms to citizens and organisations in the country including political freedoms. As such, her administration will now grant all political organisations the right to “hold political rallies peacefully”.
Speaking after the event, Abdul Nondo who is the Youth wing National Chairperson of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency Party welcomed the lifting of the ban and said “As political party leaders, political parties should use this loophole to make sure that we will demand big reforms in our laws and constitution so that all these rights that some leaders have been breaking will be protected. He added that we should make sure there will be no other leaders in the future who come and use their words to break people’s rights”.
Speaking to the Pan African Visions, Senior Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam Dr George Kahangwa said President Hassan’s decision to lift the blanket ban on political activities may not be a result of a Damascus moment but rather, it may be a convergence of various factors some of which include dialogue with opposition parties as well as pressures from the media.
“Ever since president Dr Samia Suluhu Hassan of the United Republic of Tanzania lifted the ban over political rallies in the country, political pundits have come up with several assumptions regarding what triggered her bold decision at this point. Some explain the president’s decision as a result of a consistent dialogue between the state house and leaders of the main opposition party with Hon. Freeman Mbowe at the forefront,” Dr Kahungwa said.
Regardless of what motivated President Hassan to take the bold decision, Dr Kahungwa said praise should be given as the move helps return the country onto the democratic pathway. He said “Whatever the assumptions, the bottom line of this development is that Tanzania has for several years now committed to embracing the rule of law, cherishing multi-party democracy, and replacing freedom of speech as well as the right of associations enshrined in the Constitution and Acts such as the Political Parties Act of 1992. Generally, what Tanzania needs is firm protection of such principles of democracy, lest another leader emerges to supremacy them again”.
The executive director of Reach Out Tanzania Kumbusho Dawson echoed the same sentiments saying the reasoning behind the move to lift the ban does not matter much but rather, the mere fact that now more political freedoms are granted. “It is good for the nation because political parties can explain the people’s problems and present their policies,” Dawson said.