Tanzanian opposition decries intimidation of leaders

Opposition say officials stifling free speech, hurting democracy on International Day for Universal Access to Information

Kizito Makoye   | 28.09.2021
Tanzanian opposition decries intimidation of leaders


Tanzania’s main opposition party, CHADEMA, has expressed deep concern about rising intimidation of its leaders and individuals who are increasingly criminalized under the guise of spreading false information online.

The move comes after the arrest and detention of Freeman Mbowe, CHADEMA’s national chairman, who is accused of terrorism and economic sabotage -- crimes he strongly denies.

The East African country has seen a sharp decline in respect for basic rights of expression and association as authorities target dissenting voices, according to human rights groups.

The opposition is accusing the government of adopting and enforcing repressive laws to restrict free expression, muzzle independent journalism and undermine democracy by giving officials sweeping powers to ban political activities.

CHADEMA Secretary-General John Mnyika has demanded the government repeal laws that restrict the right to free speech and association.

“These are constitutional rights, they’re flagrantly being violated with impunity,” he said.

But government spokesman Gerson Msigwa denied the allegations that authorities are targeting critics for punishment.

“Our country follows the rule of law and there’s no freedom without responsibility,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Arsenal of laws

The 2015 Cybercrimes Act was passed that year in Tanzania, which imposes hefty penalties and jail times for posting false information online. It was followed by the Statistics Act, which until its amendment in June 2019, criminalized publishing statistics without government approval.

When Samia Suluhu Hassan became President of Tanzania after the death of John Magufuli in March, she rekindled hope when she ushered in a new era of democracy after the heavy-handed rule of her predecessor.

Hassan, who inherited a divided nation, created a sense of optimism when she released political prisoners, condemned attacks on free press and called for reconciliation and national unity.

Eight months on, critics say hopes have been suddenly slashed.

“We are on the brink of a total disaster, our democracy is under attack,” said Mnyika.

A poster bearing a message in Swahili “Mbowe siyo Gaidi,” meaning, Mbowe is not a terrorist, held by a female protester outside Tanzania’s high court Thursday in Dar es Salaam, captured the state of desperation that has engulfed supporters of the country main opposition party, whose chairman is detained indefinitely for allegedly committing serious offences.

Mbowe was charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and indirectly funding terror acts in a case widely perceived as a politically motivated move to shatter his political influence.

He is accused of plotting to kill a public official, and giving 600,000 Tanzanian shillings ($260) under a ploy to blow up petrol stations and public gatherings and cutting down trees to block roads -- charges he vehemently denies.

The 60-year-old outspoken politician has been behind bars since July 21 when he was arrested in a nighttime police raid hours before he was scheduled to hold a public forum on constitutional reforms.

Armed wing

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Tundu Lissu, deputy chairman of CHADEMA and former presidential candidate, accused authorities of abducting Mbowe and illegally keeping him incommunicado for six days.

“Mbowe was not arrested. He was abducted at gun point in the middle of the night and was driven 1,100 kilometers (684 miles) to Dar es Salaam where he was held illegally without access to his family and his lawyers,”

Lissu strongly condemned the attack on civil liberties by authorities and described the charges against Mbowe as “bogus and fabricated.”

“We are dealing with a predatory police force that's being used by the ruling regime as its armed wing to attack civil liberty,” said Lissu.

He said the only mistake that Mbowe seems to have made is calling for constitutional reforms and a new political order.

“Those who say that the government of Tanzania is intolerant of dissent are completely right,” he said.

Opposition groups have long demanded constitutional reforms to give more autonomy to the people as compared to the current arrangement where the Constitution gives the head of state too much power.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Hassan denied allegations that her government is targeting the opposition but she accused them of inciting violence.

Robert Asterdam, an international lawyer who represents Mbowe, said the charges are part of what he described as nightmarish ploys to persecute the opposition.

“The ruling party (CCM), which is no longer popular, is doing everything possible to maintain its firm grip on power at any cost,” he said.

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