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Arrest of oppositionist points to political fight over security services

Spies loyal to former President Magufuli may have been flexing their muscles ahead of polls

The arrest and brief detention of opposition leader Tundu Lissu accused of holding an illegal gathering surprised those who thought that President Samia Suluhu Hassan had consolidated power and was steadily restoring democratic freedoms.

On 10 September, Lissu and three other people were detained for questioning over claims they were holding an unlawful assembly and interfering with police work. He was later released on bail.

Lissu, the former Chadema party leader who returned to Tanzania in January after several years of recovering in Belgium from an assassination attempt by former President John Magufuli's security services, has been holding political rallies across the country (Dispatches 1/2/23, Tundu Lissu's return prompts first opposition rallies for seven years).

In January, President Samia lifted a ban on opposition rallies that had been imposed by her predecessor. In recent weeks, in what appears to be a response to mounting street protests, her government has abandoned plans to rush through legal changes designed to fast track a controversial port deal with DP World, the logistics conglomerate based in the United Arab Emirates.

Since taking power after Magufuli's death in March 2021, President Samia has tried a difficult balancing act: scrapping several laws cracking down on opposition political activity, media freedom and civil society, while also keeping Magufuli's faction of the Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, and the party's grandees, on side (AC Vol 64 No 6, Samia builds her base and sets down markers).

Lissu's arrest suggests that President Samia's political control is not as some assumed. Some speak of her reforms taking two steps forward, then one step back.

The government-backed taskforce on political reform late has also recommended the establishment of an independent electoral commission and for parties and individuals to have the right to contest presidential election in the High Court.

Yet a review of the constitution, one the main demands of opposition parties, has been postponed until after the 2025 elections.

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