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Tanzania: President Suluhu Hassan frees up political space under pressure

The move was cautiously welcomed as a win for democracy by human rights groups and opposition parties.


Story by Isaac Mugabi

Tanzania’s leader has scrapped a ban on opposition rallies imposed by her autocratic predecessor, John Magufuli. The move was cautiously welcomed as a win for democracy by human rights groups and opposition parties.

Amnesty International has welcomed reforms by Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, which lifts the ban on opposition rallies imposed by her strongman predecessor, John Magufuli.

However, the human rights NGO has urged Tanzanian authorities to go further and “work towards greater protection of human rights.”

At the meeting with political party representatives on Tuesday, Suluhu unexpectedly announced that opposition groups could now hold meetings, adding that it was the government’s duty to “give permission and provide security.”

The ban was introduced in 2016 by Magufuli at at the beginning of his first term in office, which was characterized by hardline policies and draconian laws. Magufuli came to power in 2015 after presenting himself as a no-nonsense man of the people.

During his rule, however, he frequently curtailed political freedoms, earning himself the nickname “Bulldozer” for his refusal to brook any dissent. Prior to Magufuli’s tenure as president, Tanzania was often cited as a beacon of democracy in East Africa.

A president under pressure

Since being sworn in as president following the death of Magufuli in 2021, Suluhu Hassan — a ruling party stalwart herself — has been under pressure to break with her predecessor’s hardline policies.

These hopes were initially dimmed following the arrest of opposition leader Freeman Mbowe in July 2021, as he was preparing to discuss constitutional reforms at a meeting. At the time, Suluhu Hassan said she had no jurisdiction to intervene in the matter.

Tanzania’s first female president has frequently battled division within her Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, shuffling her cabinet three times in 2022 and suspending a party-owned newspaper for falsely claiming she did not intend to run in the 2025 general election.

During her tenure as leader, Suluhu Hassan has also reached out to rivals, reopened banned media outlets, and reversed some of Magufuli’s most controversial policies.

Too little, too late?

Despite the recent progress, observers say much more still needs to be done to repair Tanzania’s battered reputation.

Bullet Rulinda, a political analyst and lecturer at the Open University in Dar es Salaam, believes Suluhu Hassan’s decision to drop the ban on opposition meetings may have been the result of both external and internal pressure.

“Lifting the ban was long overdue and was unavoidable,” Rulinda told DW.

“There was neither legal basis nor constitutional backup to block opposition parties from holding meetings.”

Ruldina also surmised that Tanzania’s status as a signatory to international conventions on human rights ultimately forced Hassan to “free political space.”

“President Suluhu should definitely go beyond this announcement. There has to be concrete action to restore a fair democratic playing field in Tanzania,” Oryem Nyeko, a researcher on Tanzania for Human Rights Watch, told AFP/AP.

In a series of tweets, both the US embassy and the European Union in Tanzania also welcomed the lifting of the ban on political gatherings.

Only ‘constructive criticism’ allowed

However, Suluhu Hassan also cautioned politicians to only engage in constructive criticism.

“I don’t refer to you as opposition parties but parties that show us where the challenges are while developing the country,” Hassan said.

Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency party, still hailed the decision as a significant first step toward greater political reforms.

“I am exhilarated! This is the right that was snatched by the state through an illegal presidential decree. President Samia has cleaned up the mess. It is a normal thing, but Huge,” he told reporters via a WhatsApp message on Tuesday.

Chadema party chairman Freeman Mbowe (L) and CUF party leader Ibrahim Lipumba react to President Samia Suluhu Hassan's annoucement on Tuesday

Chadema party chairman Freeman Mbowe (L) and CUF party leader Ibrahim Lipumba react to President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s annoucement on Tuesday© Ericky Boniphace/DW

The main opposition party, Chadema, cautiously welcomed the development. Its leader Freeman Mbowe — who spent seven months in prison under Suluhu Hassan on terrorism charges which were eventually dropped — said only time will tell how the new policy will be put into practise.

“It is good that the president has allowed political meetings, but we are now waiting to see the implementation by other government officials,” Mbowe told reporters.

Hopes of reconciliation

Suluhu Hassan also said she was committed to “reconciliation and reforms,” including a long-awaited rewriting of the constitution — a key opposition demand.

“More legal reforms are coming soon to ensure that the rights of all parties are accommodated,” she said.

Amnesty International called her comments “a welcome step in the right direction”.

“We urge Tanzanian authorities to go further and work towards greater protection of human rights, including by repealing or amending the Political Parties act to remove all obstacles to rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression,” said Amnesty’s regional researcher Roland Ebole.

Edited by: Ineke Mules

Author: Isaac Mugabi

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