Tanzanian President Suluhu ends six-year ban on political rallies, promises more reforms

Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan (left) with Rwanda's president Paul Kagame during her state visit to Kigali in 2021. Photo credit; President Paul Kagame Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan (left) with Rwanda's president Paul Kagame during her state visit to Kigali in 2021. Photo credit; President Paul Kagame Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On Jan. 3, Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan announced that she’d lifted a ban on political rallies imposed in 2016 by her hardline predecessor, John Pombe Magufuli, whose primary objective was to clamp down on political dissent. The president’s announcement came against the backdrop of a meeting with leaders of nineteen opposition parties at the State House in Dar es Salaam.

The ascension of Magufuli to the presidency in 2015 saw a decline in the state of human rights in Tanzania. In 2016, Magufuli’s administration passed The Media Services Act, in an attempt to censor journalists, the opposition, and human rights activists from criticizing the government and the president. The Act resulted in the suspension of four newspapers and several online media platforms. The suspensions drew backlash from the Media Council of Tanzania (MCT), Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), and Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), who filed a joint lawsuit before the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), a treaty-based judicial body of the East African Community (EAC) to which Tanzania is a signatory.

Tanzania is headed towards a quinquennial local government election in 2024, with the presidential elections scheduled for 2025. The ending of the ban on political rallies is thus a major victory for Tanzania’s political discourse as it creates a level playing field for actors in the political ecosystem.

Critics have consistently viewed Tanzania as a “one-party hegemonic regime under Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) rule.” This is owing to the fact that while a political ban was effected in the country, only CCM-aligned politicians were able to conduct normal political activities, as their counterparts in opposition were harassed and detained by state security agencies for attempting to conduct the same. Therefore, lifting the ban offers a glimmer of hope in the wake of Tanzania having celebrated 30 years of multi-party democracy.

Addressing the media in the presence of the various opposition party leaders she had summoned, Suluhu revealed that the decision was driven by her “4Rs Philosophy” (Reconciliation, Resiliency, Reforms, and Rebuilding), and based on recommendations by a constitutional reforms task force that consisted of the ruling party and the opposition, amongst other stakeholders.

“Hosting rallies is the right of political parties as dictated by our constitution. As per our reconciliation discussions with the various parties, this emerged as the top issue. Therefore, I hereby today lift the ban,” she said, amid resounding applause and a standing ovation from members of the various political parties that were present.

Further, Suluhu revealed that a task force consisting of political parties, civil society organisations, and Tanzanians from all walks of life would be formed in due course, to kickstart a novel constitutional reform process, and build on the stalled 2014 draft constitution — one she felt could not be implemented now as it had already been overtaken by events.

Other urgent reforms on the table, she added, would focus on revamping the electoral body known as the National Electoral Commission (NEC), amending laws that ban political parties, and reforming the judiciary, among others.

Suluhu’s move comes at a time when the country has been grappling with a series of repressive laws institutionalized over the years by authorities to silence critics and members of the political opposition. The lifting of the ban on political rallies elicited views from various political leaders, parties, and human rights groups in Tanzania.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT- Wazalendo) opposition party, was ecstatic in a video interview with TBC1, the national service television channel: “What the president has done is to restore the constitution. It was no easy walk. Since 2021, we’ve had inter-party conventions and much was discussed. Subsequent meetings and discussions have got us here [lifting the ban]. The president kept her promise. We have started the year well. It’s a year of revolution and political reforms…a year of rule of law,” he said.

Freeman Mbowe, leader of the Party for Democracy and Progress (Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo or CHADEMA), Tanzania's main opposition party, said in an interview with Global TV online: “We have ‘positively’ received president Samia's statement, albeit with great caution. Our nation has had a system of suppression of democracy for a long time, from the national level to the local government level. It is correct that the president has allowed public meetings to continue, which was a constitutional and legal right in our nation. It's a good thing. In the same way, the president mentioned kickstarting the constitution process, but it is obvious that all these things need time, and constant consultations. The laws that need to be improved are numerous, the main thing that the president has talked about is that the improvement of those laws will be inclusive and collaborative, this is something important.”

Fatma Karume, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist, and ex-president of the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) tweeted;

Today SSH (Samia Suluhu Hassan) has shown that:

1: She is not afraid of political competition

  1. She respects the Constitution she swore to protect
  2. She respects Democracy
  3. She respects our rights to participate in politics
  4. She understands #Tanzania belongs to all of us

Proud of her! Proud to be Zanzibari today!

Onesmo Olengurumwa, the national coordinator of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders’ Coalition (THRD), tweeted:

“Let's set the record straight, I see many journalists use the wording political rallies have now been ‘allowed’. Political meetings were already allowed by the constitution, whatever happened in that era [the Magufuli era] defied the constitution. Now we have a president [Samia Suluhu] who has decided to protect the constitution. Her Excellency has done well to lift the ban.”

Roland Ebole, a researcher with Amnesty International weighed in. “We applaud the decision to lift the blanket ban on political rallies that has in the past been used to arbitrarily arrest and detain prominent opposition politicians who organized rallies,” Ebole said. “Participating in, and organizing, assemblies is a right, not a privilege, and does not require state authorization,” he emphasized.

On its Twitter page, The Embassy of Poland in Tanzania, tweeted:

“We congratulate H.E. President Samia Suluhu Hassan and the political parties of Tanzania for the lifting of the prohibition of political rallies by the opposition parties. Another positive step towards an active multiparty democracy.”

Martin Otieno, the Dodoma Regional Police Commander, in a press conference, assured political parties that following the president’s directive, the police would duly collaborate with all parties in the Dodoma region, which includes the capital. Otieno called on political parties to follow established procedures, to ensure that security is accorded to them during their political rallies.

With this latest development in 2023, could it perhaps be the lingering legacy for President Suluhu and one that will eventually birth a paradigm shift in Tanzania’s political landscape? Tanzanians can only wait to see.

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