On Tuesday, Tanzanian opposition leader Freeman Mbowe appeared in court, due to terrorism charges that got him arrested in July. Specifically, he was charged with financing terrorism and conspiracy. The previous day, he went to court claiming to be tortured while in jail, in an attempt to coerce him to make a statement during the trial. According to Africa News, authorities also did not allow most journalists to enter the courtroom, a concerning sign for freedom of the press. The 59-year old is leader of Chadema, a center-right political party in opposition to the governing Party of the Revolution (CCM). The arrest of Mbowe and other party officials in July is especially concerning due to Chadema being the second-largest party in the country and main opposition to the government. As such, it could be seen as an attempt to suppress viable opposition to the current president.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the arrest occurred on 21 July in a hotel where Mbowe and other party officials were gathered. A total of 11 party members were arrested, but only Mbowe was charged with a crime. The day before, the provincial government announced a ban on gatherings, with COVID-19 as the justification. The timing of the arrest and change in pandemic regulations demonstrated an intention to suppress Chadema. A conference was organized to discuss constitutional reforms on limiting presidential powers the same day. Given that the Tanzanian government had promised to be open to political reform, arresting the most important opposition leader is an indication of the current administration’s unwillingness to commit to constitutional changes.
Furthermore, it is important to know recent events in Tanzania to understand the concerns of human rights groups about the arrest of Mbowe. In March 2021, the president of Tanzania John Magufuli died unexpectedly of COVID-19. For years, there had been complaints and concerns raised by prominent groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of increased suppression of opponents, activists, and journalists. However, under current President Samia Suluhu Hassan, people expected these sorts of trials and violations to end, ushering in an age of political reforms. Since the election of Magufuli was said to have extensive fraud, if President Hassan continues the same trend, freedom of opinion and expression could be further endangered, and the next election will likely follow the same trend of allegations.
The arrest of Freeman Mbowe seems to be an attempt by Hassan’s government to silence opposition on the matter of political reform. There was an expectation that the Hassan administration would stray from the late president Magufuli’s repressive practices on opposition groups, activists, and journalists. Still, the arrest of Mbowe and other party members seems to demonstrate the continuance of the same human rights violations. In contrast, President Hakainde Hichilema was sworn into office in Zambia only a few days ago after winning as an opposition candidate. Unfortunately, this is a rare event in Africa as a whole and the recent developments in the trial of Freeman Mbowe seem to show this to be the case in Tanzania.
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