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Freeing of opposition leader Mbowe reopens political arena

Gradually and cautiously, President Samia Hassan is ending the country's grim authoritarian era

With the release of Chadema party chairman Freeman Mbowe on 4 March the authorities have moved a step closer to restoring some democratic freedoms that were supressed under President John Magufuli's rule. 

Two days earlier, religious leaders had urged the government to drop a string of terrorism charges, widely viewed as trumped up, against Mbowe and his three co-accused. This follows the dropping of terrorism charges against 23 others in the previous week (AC Vol 63 No 5, The big release).

A few hours after prosecutors dropped the charges and released Mbowe, President Samia Suluhu Hassan met with him signalling her support for moves towards political reconciliation.

'President Samia emphasised the need to join hands to build the nation, through trust and respect built on the foundations of justice,' said Hassan's office after the meeting.

During their end-of-year prayers, religious leaders had urged that 'baseless cases especially those involving political and religious leaders' also be shelved. 

Mbowe's release burnishes President Hassan's reform credentials. Two weeks ago, in another step towards restoring the rights of opposition parties, she met Mbowe's predecessor Tundu Lissu in Brussels. 

Lissu, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt by suspected government gunmen in 2017, lobbied for Mbowe's release and told reporters that the President had 'promised to work on it'. 

The two shook hands for the cameras. Lissu says he cannot live permanently in Tanzania until the President guarantees his safety,

Mbowe, who was arrested last July along with three Chadema officials, just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms, had been subjected to a stop–start trial during which two judges on the case had recused themselves (AC Vol 62 No 18, Samia the securocrat).

Defence proceedings had been due to begin on 4 March. Lissu had demanded that the government 'simply scrap the charges without any conditions whatsoever'.

President Hassan has gradually abandoned the repressive tactics of Magufuli's regime, during which opposition parties were effectively banned. She appears to be edging towards granting opposition calls for a conference on multiparty democracy and constitutional reform (AC Dispatches, 4/1/22, Hassan mends some fences with the opposition). She has lifted bans on four opposition newspapers.

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