Tanzania: ‘Freeman Mbowe’s case has been unfair since day one’ says leading human hights activist

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam
Posted on Wednesday, 22 September 2021 19:19

Freeman Mbowe, chairman of Chadema, Tanzania's main opposition party, arrives at Kisutu Magistrate Court in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herma/File Photo

The arrest of Tanzania's Freeman Mbowe - who heads the largest opposition party Chadema - on terrorism charges is one that has no basis says Anna Henga, the director general of the Legal and Human Rights centre (LHRC). Speaking to The Africa Report, she explains a string of worrisome incidents that have occurred since Samia Suluhu Hassan took over as president.

The LHRC was founded in 1995 and remains a leading non-governmental organisation in Tanzania. It works to create legal and human rights awareness among citizens through legal and civic education, provision of legal aid as well as research, human rights monitoring and advocacy.

Currently, all eyes are on Tanzania to see whether the government can provide concrete evidence that Mbowe did in fact committed terrorism offences.

In an exclusive interview with The Africa Report, Henga speaks about a number of issues since Hassan took office as the sixth head of state.

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity

The Africa Report: What is your assessment of the human rights situation in Tanzania since Samia Suluhu Hassan took over as president?

Anna Henga: There are so many human rights issues. For instance, let’s take three of them: political and civic rights, economic rights and rights of special groups.

On political and civic rights, things have changed. Some of the people who had been jailed for many years – such as Muslim clerics who spent eight years in prison – were set free and […] people are now free to express their ideas.

Additionally, we as activists were under pressure, but at least we are now free to do our work. In the case of economic rights, we must look at progression because you cannot track this within six months. However, we are seeing an improvement when it comes to special group’s rights: the president is supporting women so […] we are moving in the right direction.

She hasn’t actively stopped any media crackdown on oppositionists (such as opposition leaders calling for constitution change). Does this mean she supports such crackdowns?

There is a challenge but not like what we saw during the Magufuli regime. The challenge is that the laws are still the same: opposition […] leaders cannot conduct meetings but CCM still [does]. President Samia has failed to change this because of [the] system. Some people claim to be security personnel […] and use this to block opposition meetings. As long as bad laws still exist, it will be difficult for the president to intervene, but what we insist on is that there should be no double standards in politics.

I also want to talk [about the] Political Parties Act. Some provisions passed last year give too much power to the registrar of political parties: he has the power to de-register a political party [and this] is not healthy for a democratic country.

Government critics say terrorism charges against Mbowe are largely exaggerated. What is LHRC’s stance on this case?

Although we are working professionally and will await the court’s decision, we [believe that] Mbowe’s case has been unfair since day one. With regards to due process, his arrest and charge sheet do not meet [the criteria of] terrorism charges. They (the government) are saying that Mbowe was planning to blow up fuel stations and markets and block vehicles on highways. In the criminal justice system, this would be [categorised under] arson offences. At the end [of the day], the government will not be able to prove [the terrorism charge] and they will set him free. The problem is that he will stay in jail and will not be able to conduct political activities or run his party; and they will not compensate [him] because our law protects those who arrest him.

Is this case undermining freedom of political parties in Tanzania?

 Yes. They were arrested while in the process of conducting an internal meeting to plan for constitutional reform. Other political parties are now threatened by this move: they fear that they will be charged with terrorism. I don’t know why the government is fearful [about constitutional reform], but they should understand that this is not a big issue; […] they will lose nothing when our constitution is changed.

 What is your assessment of Tanzania’s media freedom since Samia Suluhu Hassan took over. Already, two newspapers have had their licenses revoked by her government.

Despite the incident with the two newspapers, [media] freedom is better compared to the previous regime. However, the issue here is the process before the suspension of their licenses: they [the government] should [conduct itself] in a professional manner. We must have a free press that is also a critic of the government. I regularly speak with the media and at least now they are enjoying their freedom; but most important is that even the media should adhere to professionalism.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan appointed the country’s first female defence minister. Is her government vigilant about gender balance?

 Absolutely. Dr. Stergomena Tax has a distinguished career in leadership and we hope that she will do well like other women who occupy top leadership positions in government. We also applaud the president’s effort to support gender balance and demystify a long existing myth that some government ministries are for men and not women. This should also serve as a reminder for our brothers that women can play the same role that men play in society.

What is going on with cases you filed against the government’s decision to impose levy tax on mobile phones?

The government objected by stating that we cannot open that case, but we have won; so we are entering the second phase where we will be providing evidence, and later, the court will make its decisions. What we want to achieve is public involvement before imposition of any tax.

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