Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu is facing accusations of overseeing a renewed crackdown on opposition groups, just months after she took over power and began reversing her predecessor’s ‘bulldozing’ style.
The latest incidents involved vibrant politician Freeman Mbowe, who chairs the opposition Chadema Party, and his colleagues. Mr Mbowe was arrested in Mwanza on Tuesday night and ferried in the dark to Dar es Salaam, said a statement from his party on Wednesday.
Mr Mbowe, a former MP for Hai in the Kilimanjaro region, has been vocal about a constitutional review. He and other activists had gathered in Mwanza for an indoor conference. The meeting was scuttled, brutally.
First, his party said, the police reportedly broke into the Kingdom Hotel, where Mr Mbowe and his colleagues were staying. Later in the morning, they blocked the venue of the meeting and arrested those who defied the order.
Mwanza Regional Commissioner Gabriel Luhumbi had refused to allow the meeting, citing Covid-19 violations and saying the political gathering was not authorised.
The Mwanza regional police commander, Ramadhan Ng’anzi, told the Citizen newspaper they had arrested the group for defying the ban, but Mr Mbowe was sent to Dar es Salaam after police ‘discovered’ he was wanted for other crimes.
“After we arrested him, Dar es Salaam Special Zone police also told us that they were looking for him for other crimes he is alleged to have committed there. So we transported him to Dar es Salaam, where he continues to be questioned,” he said.
The police boss revealed the whereabouts of Mr Mbowe only after protests from his supporters, who argued he had been “kidnapped” by armed police. By Wednesday, Chadema said Mr Mbowe was being linked to ‘terrorist’ activities and could be charged alongside suspected terror merchants.
“After conducting the search, the police have shocked us with reports that they will link him to a terrorism case and other suspects in prison in Dar es Salaam. We will give further updates later,” Chadema said on Twitter, referring to the police search at his home in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam.
More than two dozen police officers had stormed his home with him and gathered several of his communication gadgets, including laptops, tablets and mobile phones.
The arrest, which senior government officials haven’t commented on, came as President Suluhu fights fires related to demands for a constitutional review.
Officially, the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi has said the supreme law need not be changed, even though President Suluhu herself had been relaxing some of the restrictive policies her predecessor John Pombe Magufuli had imposed on the country.
Hope after Magufuli
“When President Samia Suluhu Hassan took over, there was hope that Magufuli’s reign of terror and war on democracy would end,” lamented Tundu Lissu, a Chadema party leader who lost to Magufuli last year in a presidential race before fleeing Tanzania for his safety.
“Last night’s arrest of Chairman Mbowe & Chadema leaders has dashed any such hope. It’s now time for nationwide protests & international isolation of her regime.”
President Suluhu had actually returned her country to the international community, following Magufuli’s death in March. She has ordered Covid-19 vaccines initially rejected by Magufuli and agreed to provide coronavirus data and advised the public to wear masks, whose quality her predecessor doubted.
He has ordered the resumption of credit talks with the Chinese on a port project.
In the region, she has shown her intent to commit her country to integration, holding talks with all leaders of the East African Community.
“Tanzanian authorities must stop targeting the opposition and trying to narrow the space they are able to operate in,” rights lobby Amnesty International said in a statement on Wednesday.
“These arbitrary arrests and detentions show Tanzanian authorities’ flagrant disregard for the rule of law, and human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association. These politically motivated arrests must stop.”
Chadema has protested the disruption of the Mwanza meeting, called the ‘Katiba Mpya’ conference, arguing an indoor gathering did not require a police permit.
“A constitutional review conference is not among the political meetings that require a police permit, under Section 11 of the Political Parties Act and the Police Force Act, sections 42 and 43. This is because all indoor meetings do not require official permission nor a notification under Tanzanian law,” said John Mrema, Chadema’s head of protocol, communications and public affairs.
Mr Mrema did acknowledge Covid-19 concerns, but said they had required delegates to follow all protocols including wearing masks, keeping social distance and washing hands.
Mr Mbowe still faced similar charges as his colleagues in Mwanza, 850km away from Dar es Salaam. It meant they could still send him back to the lakeside town once he is done with the ‘terror’ charges in the commercial capital.
Most of those detained in Mwanza were leaders of Chadema, including youth national wing head John Pambalu, the party’s chairwoman for the Njombe region, Rose Mayemba, university don Dr Azavery Lwaitama and others, as well as support staff.
These arrests, activists say, now point to a regime that has not fully abandoned the bulldozing tendencies.
“Arresting peaceful Tanzanian opposition leaders is dictatorship,” argued Dr John Njenga Karugia, a lecturer and researcher in Nairobi.
“They are just asking for a new constitution for the Tanzania they love and that is not a crime. You have just self-destroyed. What a pity. You started so well.”