The release of the leader of the main opposition party last week has raised hopes of a democratic opening in Tanzania, but many experts believe that the page of authoritarianism has not yet been turned in this East African country.
In a surprise move, Tanzanian prosecutors announced on Friday that they were dropping charges against Chadema party leader Freeman Mbowe, who has been in prison for more than seven months and on trial for terrorism. Shortly after his release, the opposition figure was received by President Samia Suluhu Hassan, and both promised to heal the country's divisions.
The meeting rekindled the optimism generated by Samia Suluhu Hassan's appointment as president in March 2021, after the sudden death of her autocratic predecessor John Magufuli, nicknamed the "Bulldozer" for his uncompromising style. At the time, she displayed a certain break with her predecessor, reaching out to the opposition and allowing the reopening of banned media.
This hope shared both at home and abroad, was dashed by the arrest of Freeman Mbowe and other Chadema leaders on 21 July in the western town of Mwanza, where they were due to take part in a rally calling for constitutional reforms.
On Friday, Chadema Secretary-General John Mnyika hoped that the release of Freeman Mbowe would "open a new chapter of truth and justice". He added: "I will be even more relieved when Tanzania has a new constitution, an independent electoral body and when we see the rights of the people respected as important aspects of democracy and development.
Samia Suluhu Hassan was under pressure to stop the prosecution of Freeman Mbowe on what Chadema described as "political" charges designed to silence the opposition. Civil rights organisations and some Western countries have regularly raised concerns about his case. Embassy representatives have regularly attended the hearings.
Rule of law
On Friday, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the ruling party facing internal divisions, welcomed the release of Freeman Mbowe with "satisfaction", pledged "to defend democracy, good governance and the rule of law". For the national coordinator of the Tanzanian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, Onesmo Ole Ngurumwa, Mbowe's release marks "an important political milestone" for President Hassan.
"The change will depend mainly on the political will, especially of the president, to resolve the main issues of democracy and rule of law raised by the opposition," said Richard Mbunda, professor of political science at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Amnesty International on Monday called on the government to do much more and "stop using the law as a weapon against the opposition and critical voices". Freeman Mbowe's release "must mark the end of the Tanzanian authorities' attempts to crush political opposition and peaceful dissent," said Sarah Jackson, the NGO's deputy director for East Africa.
Opposition groups are now looking for reforms before the 2025 presidential elections to create a level playing field. Since Samia Suluhu Hassan came to power, she has sought to break with some of John Magufuli's practices.
Last month she met in Brussels with Chadema's deputy chairman, Tundu Lissu. Lissu was the party's candidate in the 2020 presidential election against John Magufuli. He has been living in exile in Belgium since an assassination attempt in 2017.
In a speech to supporters on Tuesday, Freeman Mbowe said a truce with Samia Suluhu Hassan could pave the way for a better future. "I think it will take us somewhere and solve many political problems," he said. Other opposition members also expressed optimism, such as Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT Wazalendo) leader Zitto Kabwe, who described the meeting between Mbowe and Hassan as a "very positive gesture".
"This is not just a one-off event," he told AFP. "This is already inaugurating a new exercise in our policy. I am very optimistic about the political situation in the country, I am sure that the 2025 elections will be a little fairer than before.