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Packed Tanzania protests offer hope but reforms remain a distant dream

For thirty years, the Tanzanian opposition has worked to amend the constitution, although it is still unclear if they will be successful.

March for Constitutional Reforms in Tanzania

Thousands of supporters, armed with their demands, marched in Dar-es-Salaam on Wednesday. Tundu Lissu, the Deputy Chairman of the opposition party Chadema, announced to reporters that the rallies marked the beginning of a mission to obtain a new constitution and genuinely empower the Electoral Commission.

This public display is considered the largest since President Samia Suluhu Hassan lifted the ban on public demonstrations a year ago. The opposition, led by Lissu, strategically used these gatherings to stir controversy over electoral reforms designated for contentious elections in the coming months.

Lissu remarked, “We’ve been demanding constitutional reforms for 30 years; now we’ll take our demands to the streets. If obtaining a new constitution through dialogue isn’t possible, we’ll achieve it on the streets.”

While the rallies were deemed successful by the spectators, the big question in Tanzanian politics is how far the government will go to address Chadema’s demands.

Since assuming office in March 2021 with the goal of implementing democratic reforms, Hassan has kept observers guessing about her next steps.

Unlike her predecessor, John Magufuli, known for his authoritarian tendencies, who silenced the media and imposed bans on rallies and public events, Hassan has reversed some restrictions. She reinstated expelled members and eased the ban on rallies and public events imposed on opposition figures like Lissu.

However, during her tenure, allegations of suppressing dissent also surfaced. Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe spent seven months in jail on charges of “terrorism,” arrested the night before organizing a rally for the party. Constitutional reforms, dissent, and steadfast resolve.

Even with the success of the recent rallies and public events in 2023, Hassan’s approach to addressing Chadema’s demands and reconciling with dissenting voices remains uncertain.

Two weeks prior to the announcement of the rallies, the Regional Commissioner for Dar-es-Salaam declared that government officials and the military would clean the streets on the same day as the planned rallies. The official statement immediately indicated an intention to prevent the rallies from happening.

The police also issued a statement, warning of intervention if the rallies did not remain peaceful. Some analysts argue that the security agencies, without acknowledging any potential challenges, were determined to allow Chadema to proceed without any disruption.

Columnist and commentator Elsie Ijueze said, “I don’t think they only give them credit for their money, but they also appreciate them for keeping their bodies where their mouths are.” She suggested that the decision to let the rallies happen was part of the healing process initiated by Hassan, a departure from Magufuli’s era, known for its resistance to dissent.

Despite differing opinions on the government’s decision, Chadema deserves credit for its boldness in advancing the rallies, not Hassan and her government for preventing them.

Thirty Years On: Demands for Constitutional Reforms in Tanzania

Thirty years ago, when Tanzania decided to transition from a single-party system to a multi-party democracy, calls for amendments to the existing constitution began in 1977.

After Magufuli’s election in 2015, they resurfaced due to opposition claims of electoral manipulation by the state machinery collaborating with the ruling party. The government has proposed altering the structure of the committee that selects commissioners for the electoral body, with the President appointing the Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of the Electoral Commission.

Critics argue that the President’s preference, who also serves as the head of the governing party, should be scrutinized by an independent committee. They also advocate for expanding the scope of the bill, currently focused on national, parliamentary, and ward elections, to include the organization of elections for street, village, and ward executive officers, currently managed by regional administration and local government ministries, not the electoral commission.

Chadema, in particular, has taken a step forward in demanding a fresh preparation of bills. “If you look at the sizes of minorities in these bills, you realize… the only way to fix these bills is to take them back from parliament and rewrite them after the 1977 constitution is amended,” said the party’s John Mnyika, the Secretary-General, after presenting an analysis to the parliamentary committee.

The party’s other demands include reviving the bill for a new constitution, regardless of what happens in parliament next month. For many Tanzanians, there is some uncertainty about what basis the government will agree upon before the 2026 elections, especially when negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition have failed to yield desired results for over a year.

Experts suggest that Tanzania may enter a period of continuous protest amid these uncertainties. Thabit Jacob, a political commentator and postdoctoral researcher at Lund University in Sweden, said, “The fact that most of their recommendations have been ignored shows that all of Samia’s talk and good promises are pointless.” “Rallies give them a chance to talk about the immediacy of the situation because behind-the-scenes discussions have proven ineffective.”

Some argue that the President needs time to work and assert that she represents a progressive element within the ruling party, operating a separate system from her predecessors. The discussion is also growing about the need for the opposition to show restraint on their demands as a compromise between both sides seems unlikely in the coming months.

Aikuzwe stated, “Let’s mature politically.” “It’s easy to destroy any system overnight, but it takes time to build a democracy. Chadema has been opposing it for three presidents so far, and suddenly we have a march and a jump, and we are going to change the constitution. What planet are we on?”

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