The release from the prison of Freeman Mbowe, the national chairperson for the opposition CHADEMA party, is a momentous occasion in Tanzania’s politics. Mr Mbowe and three others had been charged with terrorism and economic crimes offences on July 26, 2021. He was set free on Friday, March 4, 2022, after the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) dropped all the charges.
Obviously, the release of Mr Mbowe elicited positive reactions from CHADEMA members and other political stakeholders. There has been political goal-scoring, spinning and exchange of some harsh words between political nemeses on social media.
But, generally, the release of Mr Mbowe has filled many people with a sense of optimism on Tanzania’s political future and on President Samia Hassan Suluhu’s capacity to listen and make amends.
But it is prudent to be cautiously optimistic about the whole affair. The release of Mr Mbowe is not some kind of an achievement. It was, for all intents and purposes, a result of tremendous pressure on President Samia from inside and outside the country.
Whether President Samia will rally the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) behind her and use this as an opportunity to start the difficult journey to rectify Tanzania’s patchy democracy is another thing. But it is decisions made and actions taken going forward that will show Tanzanians and the world if CCM has learnt from the mistakes that it made that led up to the “trumped-up” charges against Mr Mbowe.
For, Mr Mbowe’s arraignment in court on terrorism and economic crimes charges was not by accident. It was not an isolated case. It was most probably part of an ill-thought strategy to “behead” CHADEMA, a major opposition party in Tanzania. But let bygones be bygones! And as several stakeholders have said this is an opportunity to chart a new course in Tanzanian politics.
Hard road ahead
The journey towards a democratic Tanzania that has enough space for everyone to exercise their rights is difficult; the road is treacherous. All political actors and stakeholders whether from the ruling party or the opposition or independent must admit this reality.
There should be no pause, however. The next immediate step after the release of Mr Mbowe should be the review of all gross human rights violations that took place in the last seven years so as to bring closure to victims and their loved ones and to heal the nation.
No silence will suffice. Justice delayed will be justice denied. There is no need to mince words. Tanzanians must know what happened to the journalist Azory Gwanda and to the political activist Ben Sanane. If they were abducted, who ordered it? If they were murdered, who ordered it?
A judicial investigation or a political process in terms of a truth and reconciliation commission should be initiated.
The scrapping of draconian political and media laws should be next. The ruling party must understand that the requirement of the Constitution of Tanzania on democracy and multiparty politics is non-negotiable.
If CCM is gung-ho about making Tanzania a one-party state let them be bold enough and reverse the Constitution back to the one-party arrangement. If they can’t muster that courage, let them respect the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.
The ball is on President Samia’s court
Expectations for President Samia to deliver more in healing Tanzania are high. Despite the pressure to release Mr Mbowe, President Samia could have chosen to hide behind the court of law and “let justice take its course.” She didn’t. And this has put more responsibility on her shoulders to deliver more results. Tanzania has an imperial presidency.
President Samia, therefore, occupies an office with so much power, which she can use to bring the much-needed change to Tanzania. If she doesn’t use those powers for the good of the country, opportunists around her will use those same powers for their own selfish interests.
And she will be the one to take the blame. As the chairperson of the ruling party, she should rally her CCM colleagues and facilitate credible reforms.
To be able to do this she will have to be courageous. She will have to encircle herself with political advisers and aides who are patriotic and unafraid of telling her the truth. She should learn to say no to the hardliners in the party who regard lawful political competition as an affront to CCM.
Samia should open up avenues for constant consultations with the opposition, the civil society and other people with an independent mindset and a different viewpoint. It could help if she viewed her presidency as historic, with a rare chance to help bring the long-drawn democratic transition to completion.
The statement she made when she met Mr Mbowe at the State House on the evening of March 4, 2022, following the latter’s release is telling. She said the two had spoken about the importance of conducting politics based on mutual respect and trust.
Delivering on this will shape her legacy.
Damas Kanyabwoya is a veteran journalist and a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He’s available at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are the writer’s own opinions and it does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.