By Lisa Vives
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan appears to be taking a page from her predecessor, the late John Magufuli, by cracking down on members of the opposition who have been calling for constitutional reform for decades.
Freeman Mbowe, leader of the opposition Chadema party, has been detained on “terrorism” charges that his party has branded a bid by President Hassan’s government to muzzle the opposition.
Police also arrested 10 party members as their group was preparing to hold a symposium on constitutional change by the youth wing—apparently for violating a ban on “unnecessary gatherings.” The ban, enacted the day prior, was officially billed as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Yet its timing and the charges levelled against Mbowe—the party leader is accused, without evidence, of funding terrorist activities aimed at assassinating government leaders—suggest the true intent is to suppress calls for much-needed constitutional reform.
“We strongly condemn this blatant violation of the constitution and rule of law,” said a release by Chadema seen by Al Jazeera, “sowing the seeds of hatred, discrimination and discord within communities.”
The arrests were defended by police chief Longinus Tibishibwamu who was quoted to say that the force cannot allow such events to take place. “The president has instructed that people should now focus on economic development… So, such conferences will have to wait.”
President Hassan, in her first days in office, had created a sense of optimism, not just through her calls for reconciliation and national unity but her candour. Her boldest reversal was the country’s COVID-19 ambivalence.
The new president also spoke against suppressing media freedom. She released dissidents and pledged to meet the opposition.
But recent arrests have cast doubt on her promises for a kinder, gentler nation.
Tanzania’s constitution, ratified in 1977, is among the oldest remaining in force in sub-Saharan Africa. One of its defining features is the imperial powers vested on the head of state. Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president and the architect of its constitution, once quipped “I have sufficient powers under the constitution to be a dictator.” Together with the need to curtail the powers of the president, there has been a demand for a progressive law that is anchored by the principles of human rights, freedoms and institutional accountability.
When Magufuli, nicknamed ‘the bulldozer’, became president in 2015, he said a new constitution was not part of his agenda.
Tanzania has enjoyed relative political stability over the years, writes Nicodemus Minde, a writer with the online newsletter “The Conversation”. “But it needs a new constitution to address contemporary challenges such as poverty, inequality and corruption. A constitution could strengthen public institutions through good governance and accountability.”