Tanzania’s president ends 6-year ban on opposition rallies

Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan lifted Tuesday (Jan. 05) a ban on opposition rallies imposed in 2016 by her strongman predecessor, in an overture to political rivals seeking the restoration of democratic traditions.

Hassan has been under pressure to break with the hard-line policies of John Magufuli, who died in 2021 after a six-year-rule in a country once seen as a democratic beacon in East Africa.

Magufuli had come to power in 2015 as a no-nonsense man of the people but presided over a sustained crackdown on dissent and political freedoms, earning the nickname “Bulldozer” for his authoritarian leadership style.

Early in his tenure, Magufuli banned political rallies, saying it was time for work, not politics.

But critics said the ban applied only to opposition groups, with the ruling party free to assemble while rival gatherings were violently broken up by police.

In revoking the ban, Hassan, a ruling party stalwart who became the country’s first female president when Magufuli died, said political gatherings were a right for all.

“I am here to declare that the ban on political rallies is now lifted,” Hassan told a gathering of political leaders who were invited to the State House in Dar es Salaam.

“The government will be responsible for ensuring security during rallies, but I urge all politicians to also practise civilised politics.”

‘Free to criticise’

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Zitto Kabwe, a Tanzanian opposition leader, said the decision was a 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 AFP in a WhatsApp message.

The opposition hoped Hassan would turn the page on Magufuli’s uncompromising rule, and there was early optimism when the new leader reached out to rivals and allowed the reopening of banned media outlets.

She also dropped some of Magufuli’s most controversial policies, including a ban on pregnant girls and teenaged mothers attending school, and introduced a vaccination campaign for Covid-19 that her predecessor mocked.

But her presidency fell under a shadow when Freeman Mbowe, a prominent opposition leader, was arrested in July 2021 just hours before his political party was to hold a public forum.

He was later released and the charges against him dropped, with Hassan promising to heal the rift.

But critics branded her a “dictator” and doubts remained about her commitment to political and media freedoms.

Speaking to leaders on Tuesday, Hassan promised “more legal reforms are coming soon” to make Tanzania’s political environment more inclusive.

“You are all free to criticise the government wherever you see challenges, so that we address them for the benefit of our people,” she said.

Hassan has battled division within her Chama Cha Mapinduzi party since taking office, shuffling her cabinet three times in 2022 as internal fissures broke into the open.

She has accused rivals inside the government of trying to damage her leadership, and last year suspended a party-owned newspaper for publishing a story saying she would not run in elections set for 2025.

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