Tanzania's main opposition party holds first rally after six years of bans

Tanzania's main opposition party on Saturday held its first mass rally since the lifting of a 2016 ban, raising hope of greater political freedom in the East African nation.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan this month lifted the ban on Chadema slapped by her hard-line predecessor John Magufuli, who was nicknamed "Bulldozer" for his pugnacious style.

Hassan, in power for 22 months, is seeking to break with some of Magufuli's policies and has made overtures to the opposition.

"Thank God that the day has come when we speak with fellow Tanzanians though this public gathering," Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe told the rally, attended by thousands in the lakeside city of Mwanza.

The rally marked the  the 30th anniversary of the party's political registration.

The supporters sported the party colours -- blue, red and white -- and sang songs praising their leaders as a handful of police officers guarded the venue.

"We have been silent for almost seven years but finally, our right is restored and we are ready to move ahead," Mwanza resident Mary Dismas told AFP.

The move was cautiously welcomed as a gain for democracy by rights groups and the country's opposition.

Magufuli had banned political rallies early in his tenure, saying it was time for work, not politics.

But critics said the ban applied only to opposition groups, with the ruling party free to assemble.

Rival gatherings were violently broken up by police and party officials jailed.

- '2023 is an important year' -

There was early optimism when Hassan, Tnzania's first woman president, reached out to rivals, reopened banned media outlets and reversed some of Magufuli's most controversial policies.

But her presidency came under criticism when Mbowe and other senior Chadema officials were arrested in July 2021 just hours before they were to hold a public meeting seeking constitutional reforms.

Hassan, who has battled divisions in her ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, has since made conciliatory gestures towards the opposition.

In early 2022, she met in Brussels with Chadema deputy chairman Tundu Lissu, who was the party's candidate in the 2020 presidential election but lives in exile in Belgium after an attempt on his life in 2017.

Lissu said last week that he would return to Tanzania on January 25, expressing optimism that "2023 is an important year in the history of our country."

His party comrade Mbowe, who spent seven months in prison on terrorism charges, led the Saturday rally, organised in the port city where they were arrested.

"Our reconciliation conversation with the president has yielded because even the police who arrested me in Mwanza are today guarding our meeting," Mbowe said, asking  supporters to applaud the officers "for a good job."

While heaping praise for Hassan, the 61-year-old said the demand for a new constitution and an independent electoral body was at the top of the party's agenda now.

"I deeply appreciate President Samia Suluhu Hassan's tolerance during our conversation for reconciliation... some people would want to hear me insulting her but I will never do that."

Adopted in 1977, Tanzania's constitution has been amended more than 10 times, including with a provision to introduce a multi-party system.

Previous attempts to change the basic law stalled in 2014, with the opposition push for reforms met with government crackdowns.

Chadema officials said on Saturday a series of grassroots rallies had been lined up.

"We will organise as many rallies as possible to reach all wards and villages in the country," said Sharifa Suleiman, acting chair of Chadema women's wing.

"This is our time to build the ground for (the) 2025 elections," she said.

Another official, Hashim Juma Issa, said the party was "opening up a new page" as it celebrated its 30th anniversary.