Tanzania’s President Suluhu’s attendance at opposition's event signals the start of cordial relations

 President Samia Suluhu Hassan of United Republic of Tanzania during a State Visit in 2021. Image credit: Paul Kagame Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

President Samia Suluhu Hassan of United Republic of Tanzania during a State Visit in 2021. Image credit: Paul Kagame. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the world marked International Women’s Day, Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan set tongues wagging when she accepted an invitation to be the chief guest in an event organised by the opposition’s Party for Democracy and Progress (Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo or CHADEMA) women’s council, known as Baraza la Wanawake Chadema (BAWACHA).

Hosted in Moshi, a municipality and the capital of Kilimanjaro region in the northeastern part of the country, the event saw BAWACHA chairperson Sharifa Suleiman and leader of Tanzania's main opposition party, CHADEMA, Freeman Mbowe welcome and share the podium with the president.

Addressing the congregation of more than 3,000 enthusiastic women from the opposition, President Suluhu stated that the event had opened a new chapter in the history of the country:

“Reaching out to the opposition while maintaining a cordial relationship with the CCM-led government was not an easy task, and was not something that hardliners in either CHADEMA or the ruling party CCM would readily accept.”

She added that a “new culture of unity” had been birthed between her CCM administration and the opposition, and even though some critics were not happy with this arrangement, “they would promptly get accustomed to it.”

Under her predecessor John Magufuli’s regime, Tanzania slid into autocracy. In his term in office, he dealt a serious blow to civic space by enacting repressive laws, most of which were introduced in the latter days of his predecessor – Jakaya Kikwete, to justify government censorship of civic and media spaces, as well as carry out arbitrary arrests.  The opposition for instance was deprived of the right to assemble as stipulated under Article 20(1) of the 1977 Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. Further, his regime persecuted and even incarcerated opposition lawmakers on trumped-up charges, and claims of being puppets of foreign powers.

President Suluhu’s historic gesture to attend the opposition’s event comes at a time she’s marking two years of her presidency, while her ruling party — Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) — clocks 46 years of existence. Since her ascension to power, she has steadily signalled a desire to move away from her predecessor’s retrogression path by implementing a series of reforms and fostering reconciliation. Immediately after taking office in 2021, Samia ordered the indefinite lifting of a ban on media houses. The media ban had been in place since 2015.

While giving her remarks at the opposition’s event, Suluhu narrated how obstacles had cropped up on both sides of the political divide, thus threatening the reconciliation process.

Citing an example of when she had to lift the ban on opposition political rallies, Suluhu revealed that this welcome effort by the opposition was vehemently opposed by some CCM ruling party inner circle. She added that despite the hardship faced in making headway, she was determined to establish a new country with a wider civic space.

Further, she argued that embracing dialogue as opposed to confrontation was vital for courteous debates. In an attempt to rebut naysayers, President Samia promised to revive the stalled constitutional review process, as the opposition has long demanded:

“No one is saying no to demands for the New Constitution. Even my party has prescribed that the constitution-writing process should be reinstituted. Thus, after speaking with other political parties, I'll in due time create a committee to carry out that task.”

In her closing remarks, President Suluhu called on political players to set aside their different political beliefs and help steer the country to modern economic prominence.

Under Suluhu’s presidency, the country has witnessed milestones in the democratic space in what some commentators have termed as “demagufulification of the politics of Tanzania.” Suluhu has gradually moved away from her predecessor’s autocratic style of governance by embracing a less aggressive style of leadership fostering newfound optimism with regard to a return to respecting the rule of law and improving multiparty democracy.

Her impressive four Rs philosophy i.e Reconciliation (Maridhiano), Resiliency (Ustahamilivu), Reforms (Mabadiliko), and Rebuilding (Kujenga Upya), has been an instrumental pillar in extending an olive branch to the opposition.  For the first time in six years, political rallies by the opposition made a comeback in January 2023, exciting opposition politicians at Tanzanians at large.

Speaking earlier at the event, Freeman Mbowe, leader of the Party for Democracy and Progress (Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo or CHADEMA), Tanzania's main opposition party, showered President Suluhu with praise, and thanked her for upholding the deal they had reached on during their initial meeting at the State House in March 2022. The State House meeting had happened hours after prosecutors dropped charges against Mbowe and set him free. The CHADEMA leader had been incarcerated during the deceased President John Magufuli’s regime on terrorism allegations.

Mbowe reiterated that reconciliation cannot be between just two sides — CHADEMA and CCM — as there were other political parties, faith-based institutions, and civil society organisations, amongst others that were anticipating reconciliation.

Leaders of the women’s council, BAWACHA, on their part called on Suluhu to ensure a new constitutional dispensation is effected as the political gears shift towards the country’s quinquennial presidential general elections set for 2025.

The recent political goings-on in Tanzania exhibits Suluhu’s determination to unite Tanzanians, notwithstanding their political affiliations. This has made her continue to win the hearts of many Tanzanians.

In November 2022, the Tanzanian Parliament passed a Personal Data Protection Act after a protracted wait, a development that was much welcomed by stakeholders.

This development was followed by the announcement that she’d lifted a ban on political rallies imposed in 2016 by her hardliner predecessor Magufuli, prompting the return of exiled opposition figures.

In February 2023, the Tanzanian government backtracked on its stance on amending The Media Services Act, 2016, when it slotted the amendment bill in the parliament’s schedule. The bill which has since undergone its first reading, seeks to repeal various controversial clauses muzzling media freedom in the country.

Currently, Suluhu has embarked on a path to a series of reforms with a sharp focus on judiciary reforms and legal reforms and will be hosting U.S Vice President Kamala Harris later in March this year, in a meeting seen as a bid to repair frosty relations with the U.S., following sanctions that were imposed as a result of the erosion of civil liberties under the late president Magufuli.

Despite the steady headway, the herculean task that may perhaps dog Suluhu’s legacy is the constitutional reforms puzzle.  Analysts have long attested that the present constitution has been key to cementing the ruling CCM party's grip on power, consequently perpetuating impunity under the one-party hegemonic regime.

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