Tanzania: Politicised trial of Chadema’s Mbowe is a test of Hassan’s committment to reform

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam
Posted on Thursday, 9 September 2021 08:53

Tanzania's main opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Progress, also known as Chadema, leader Freeman Mbowe flashes a two-fingers salute sitting inside a prison bus while arriving at the Kisutu Resident Magistrate Court, where he is facing terrorism-related charges, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania 6 August 2021. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman

Tanzania's Freeman Mbowe, leader of the main opposition party, Chadema, was sent to prison in July and is now on trial on charges of financing terrorism. He and his allies say these charged are trumped up and represent the bad old days of opposition intimidation under former president John Magufuli. What happens now is a crucial test of President Samia Suluhu Hassan's commitment to reform and levelling the political playing field.

The outspoken opposition leader was arrested in his hotel room in Mwanza on 21 July amid his party’s renewed campaign for a new constitution, which would liberalise Tanzania’s politics and weaken the dominant position of President Suluhu and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.

“The government seems to believe that after arresting Mbowe, his party will stop talking about constitution reforms. This is not good,” says Emmanuel Kaniki, a political analyst based in Tabora.

The government has not announced what it plans to do in response to the calls for constitutional reforms. Officials in the ruling party and those in government have been downplaying them.

“CCM has no constitution[al] agenda for now. Our focus is to implement all strategic projects like building the standard gauge railway. The opposition aim is to gain popularity and power via the constitution process,” Shaka Hamdu Shaka, a member of CCM’s central committee told supporters on 8 August.

Free man no more

The Tanzanian authorities are charging Mbowe and his three colleagues with economic sabotage and terrorism offences, which according to the 2002 Terrorism Act do not allow him to apply for bail. His latest hearing was held on 31 August.

The state prosecutor also says Mbowe supported terrorist activities to facilitate the murder of Lengay Ole Sabaya, a former Hai District commissioner. The government says Mbowe was involved in plans to set up bombs at public gatherings and petrol stations.

On 24 August, at Kisutu Magistrate Court, the state said it expects 24 witnesses to testify in the economic sabotage case. One of the witnesses is Robert Boaz, former director of public prosecution. The prosecutors say Mbowe provided TSh600,000 ($258.7) to support terrorist activities, a statement opposition members say is a joke.

What does the evidence show?

“Is this the evidence we have been waiting for? Is this [the] strong evidence we have been waiting for? Is this what Mama [President Samia Suluhu Hassan] told the world, that Mbowe was sponsoring terrorist acts? […] How can TSh600,000 supports terrorism activities?” says Godlisten Malisa, a political analyst and member of Chadema.

Malisa says the evidence provided by the government clearly shows that the government was not well prepared. He argues that its handling of the case adds to rumours that Mbowe’s arrest and charges are politically motivated.

We are following this case very carefully. Tanzania has come from a difficult time during the Magufuli regime…

Malisa adds: “This case paints a bad picture to the government – with no merit. I advise the president to order the […] director of public prosecution to remove this case.”

Why is his case drawing so much attention?

Mbowe is a seasoned, charismatic politician and business person who has been at the forefront of national politics since the reintroduction of multiparty democracy in 1992.

In 2004, he became the chairperson of the main opposition party, Chadema. He served as member of parliament for Hai constituency and was opposition leader in parliament from 2010 to 2020.

Mbowe has been a mentor to young politicians in his party and elsewhere:

  • David Silinde, a member of parliament and deputy minister responsible for local government
  • Patrobas Katambi, who defected to CCM and is now serving as a deputy minister.
  • And other politicians such as Halima Mdee, Salum Mwalimu, John Heche and John Mnyika, who is now serving as party secretary general.

Authoritarian attempts

Mbowe’s arrest, in July, sparked a wave of criticism at a time when Tanzanians were recovering from the era of Magufuli dictatorship.

Speaking on Maria Sarungi’s Space, a platform used by the Tanzanian Twitter community to discuss matters of national interest, Jenerali Ulimwengu – a veteran journalist – said President Suluhu should be careful. “I see the government is playing with fire. President Samia needs to understand Tanzania and its culture of politics and tolerance.”

A senior government official who requested anonymity told The Africa Report that some state officials are not happy with how the government is dealing with the opposition. “Mbowe has been active in politics and business for more than 30 years; how come the government that even worked with him in the business aspect for so many years now comes with charges that even it cannot substantiate? This is a political witch hunt.”

Opposition front

James Mbatia, leader of the NCCR-Mageuzi party, called on President Suluhu to live up to her promise. “The president said she wants to create a free society, which is good, and I urge her to embrace that promise. Political problems should be solved politically,” Mbatia told The Africa Report in Dar es Salaam.

Zitto Kabwe, leader of the ACT Wazalendo party, told reporters in Zanzibar last week that his party is against Mbowe’s arrest and charges. “We urge the government to respect democratic rights as stipulated in our constitution. Mbowe’s arrest proves that President Samia wants to continue the trend of her predecessor Magufuli,” said Kabwe.

… we thought that this regime [would] respect human and political rights. Unfortunately we need to be vigilant and look at Tanzania with different eyes.

During Magufuli’s term, members of the opposition in Tanzania were tortured, arrested as the government cracked down on their activities. Chadema leader Tundu Lissu was the victim of an assassination attempt.

Despite calls for protests, not much has happened since the government warned that any plot to destabilise the country will be dealt with. “We cannot allow some political elements to cause chaos just because of political interest,” police chief Simon Sirro told reporters in Zanzibar.

Diplomats also following the proceedings

Since Mbowe’s first arraignment, members of diplomatic corps from the European Union, United States and United Kingdom have been closely following the case.

A senior diplomat from the European Union tells The Africa Report that the international community is saddened by the way the Tanzanian government deals with opposition parties.

“We are following this case very carefully. Tanzania has come from a difficult time during the Magufuli regime, and we thought that this regime [would] respect human and political rights. Unfortunately we need to be vigilant and look at Tanzania with different eyes,” she says.

Diplomats and the opposition are waiting to see how the government handles the Mbowe case: a major sign of how reformist the Suhulu government will be in this post-Magufuli period.

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