Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – On Saturday, Chadema, Tanzania’s main opposition party, held its first public rally in more than six years in the northwestern city of Mwanza just three weeks after President Samia Suluhu Hassan lifted a ban on political gatherings imposed in 2016.
There was a jubilant reception of party leaders in the city by hundreds of supporters in uniforms with Chadema colors – red, blue and white. There were also poetry performances and contortionists on hand to entertain the supporters who thronged the Furahisha stadium, the rally venue.
In June 2016, Hassan’s predecessor John Magufuli prohibited elected officials from holding rallies outside their constituencies. The former president argued that the election season was over and rallies were a waste of time and a distraction from development.
This soon became a blanket ban for political gatherings as the police turned down opposition requests to organize rallies. In some cases, even internal party meetings were disrupted with leaders and their followers harassed and arrested.
But Magufuli himself kept holding rallies and crisscrossing the country by road with his entourage, making numerous impromptu stops to address locals and make off-script decisions.
Critics say his behavior was part of a plan to crush dissent within the East African country. After Magufuli’s sudden death in office in 2021, Hassan became president.
She made moves to reconcile with the opposition but was also seen as continuing some of the draconian policies of her predecessor – including a seven-month detention of Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe on charges of “terrorism financing”.
On Saturday while addressing the party’s cheering supporters, Mbowe was in a conciliatory mood, urging those gathered to shun hatred against ruling party supporters and their leaders as he showered praise on President Hassan.
“Without shame, I stand before you and the world to thank President Samia Suluhu Hassan, for the way she was patient in many meetings that we held as I convinced her to realize the need for reconciliation in this country. This president accepted reconciliation,” said Mbowe.
He described the resumption of rallies as a restoration of fundamental civic rights Tanzanians were robbed of as a result of weak laws.
Tundu Lissu, Chadema’s presidential candidate who fled to Europe after the 2020 elections when at least 15 people were killed by security forces and aligned militia, has said he will return home now that the ban has been lifted.
Alvera Kizza, a resident of the Rumala area in Mwanza, who attended the rally, told Al Jazeera people there had “no fear of tear gas or any other form of confrontation with the police” and hoped that “these rallies will be used to educate and campaign for a new constitution.”
She said the freedom to conduct political activities would be beneficial even to the ruling party as it would learn what its supporters and the opposition want and be able to implement those demands.
“There used to be a huge tension among individuals supporting opposing political parties that neighbors would not support each other during important social events such as weddings and funerals,” Jackson Benjamin, another attendee told Al Jazeera. “I hope this freedom to participate in political parties would release that tension.”
Benjamin said he was moved by Mbowe’s speech and pleased to see police maintaining order rather than harassing opposition supporters at the rally like in the past.
The resumption of rallies is seen as part of Hassan’s attempt to break away from Magufuli’s leadership style which was widely described as authoritarian.
From lifting a ban on several newspapers to allowing pregnant students to return to school and embracing COVID vaccination, Hassan has been single-minded in undoing Magufuli’s many controversial actions and positioning herself as a reformist.
In December 2021, a special task force was formed to investigate and report on democratic processes in the country. Three months later, the task force presented its report to Hassan with the recommendation to resume public rallies. Other recommendations included the restoration of the constitutional reform process and the review of laws that stifle political processes in the country.
In July 2022, as the country marked 30 years of multiparty politics, Hassan authored an op-ed for the local paper The Citizen, summarizing her intentions in what she coined as “4 Rs; Reconciliation, Resiliency, Reforms and Rebuilding.”
Bernadeta Killian, professor of political science at the University of Dar es Salaam said the end of the ban on political rallies had led to a high level of excitement among the public. Subsequent gatherings ahead of the 2025 elections would strengthen democratic processes in the country, she said.
“The rallies will rejuvenate both the ruling and opposition parties,” Killian said. “Truth is, even the ruling party was somehow constrained in its political activities. By their very nature, rallies usually act as platforms to articulate public demands and channel them into decision-making processes. With their resumption, they are going to enhance people’s participation in political activities and help them make informed political choices.”
Killian linked the change of policy to the presidential task force formed to review the country’s democratic processes and ongoing negotiations that senior ruling party officials held with their Chadema counterparts.
Although details of negotiations between the two parties have not been made public, Chadema has in the past said that the resumption of public rallies and the need for a new constitution are top of their agenda.
Ismail Jussa, an opposition politician from Zanzibar Island, told Al Jazeera that Hassan has shown a willingness to start afresh and release political tension which had engulfed the country for close to a decade.
“This is an opportunity for us politicians to seize and find effective ways to hold the government accountable,” Jussa, who is part of the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT-Wazalendo), the country’s third-largest political party, said.
“We now have a platform to show the public alternative leadership and policies that Tanzanians deserve, something that we were not able to do in close to seven years.”