Leaders of opposition parties CHADEMA and ACT-Wazalendo have had different reactions towards President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s announcement that she intends to meet with all political parties in Tanzania, with the former dismissing it as a ruse while the latter commending it.
In her State of the Nation address delivered in the National Assembly in the capital Dodoma yesterday, April 22, 2021, President Samia called freedom and democracy fundamentals in any country, warning, however, that laws and regulations should regulate the two.
“In an attempt to defend democratic freedom in Tanzania, I’ll meet with Tanzania’s political parties’ leaders,” the 61-year-old Head of State said amid wide applause from members of parliament as well as other dignitaries who had attended her address. “[I’m] meeting them so that, collectively, we can redefine the conducting of political activities in [Tanzania] in a way that benefits our country.”
It was the first time that President Samia hinted at meeting with opposition parties since taking over the presidency following the sudden death of her predecessor John Magufuli who died on March 17, 2021, following heart complications. President Samia made the announcement amid a crippling ban on political activities imposed by Magufuli in early 2016 and which put the government and opposition parties at loggerheads.
It is against the background of this ban that remains enforceable to this day, plus other mistreatments that opposition leaders have been receiving from State organs that President Samia’s intention to meet with Tanzania’s political opposition was received and debated.
Zitto Kabwe, ACT-Wazalendo party leader, whose party is a partner party in the Zanzibar Government of National Unity (GNU) with the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), praised President Samia’s statement in a Twitter post, calling it “a strong statement” that “defines a new national trajectory [aimed] at dealing with the dying democracy.”
However, Freeman Mbowe, the CHADEMA national chairperson, called President Samia’s announcement “[an] opportunity missed.” In a Twitter post, Mr Mbowe said: “State of the Union Speech by [President Samia] turned into CCM reconciliatory showbiz in the [illegitimate Parliament] hanging in the shadow of [Magufuli]. [The] new chapter calls for public admission [and] repent for crimes committed [by the government]. [Otherwise], meeting opposition signifies nothing but an art of deception.”
In another Twitter post, however, Zitto Kabwe, who has adopted a sympathetic attitude towards the Samia Administration, clarified his stance on the Head of State’s address, describing it as “a half-full or half-empty glass.” Elaborating his point, Mr Kabwe said: “Truth remains that [President Samia] comes from within CCM. She has to cling to that base. But she has also shown her realisation of the challenges that democracy faces [in Tanzania]. She has extended a reconciliatory hand.”
But experience shows that meeting with key opposition leaders does not always guarantee reconciliation. In early March 2020, for instance, the then-president Magufuli held talks with leaders of opposition parties at the State House on different occasions amid a crackdown on opposition parties activities in the country. Mr Magufuli met with the then ACT-Wazalendo national chairperson, the late Seif Sharif Hamad. He also met with NCCR-Mageuzi national chairperson Mr James Mbatia as well as the Civic United Front (CUF) national chairperson Prof Ibrahim Lipumba.
Analysts and observers of Tanzania’s political development then hoped that these talks would produce something substantial when it comes to the relationship between the government and opposition parties which would involve some steps to remove the gag put on the latter’s activities, like the lifting of the ban on politics, but none of that happened.
Magufuli’s talks with key opposition leaders, except those from CHADEMA, also took place only seven months before the General Election in October 2020. Many expected that despite the legal framework that tilts the playing field in the interest of the ruling CCM, the government and Mr Magufuli, in particular, would take some steps to make sure the elections are free and fair, mainly because this is the promise that Mr Magufuli had earlier made. This, also, as it turned out, was not going to be the case either.
Informed by this experience, Fatma Karume, former Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) president and political commentator, said in a Twitter post that President Samia’s statement on freedom and democracy shows that she understands the importance of the two. “But will she walk the talk?” asks Fatma, one of the most prominent critics of the government.
Time, as they say, will prove everything!