The protest march was peaceful, so what was all the fuss about?

Monday January 29 2024

Chairman of Chadema Freeman Mbowe (L) flashes a victory sign during party's first political rally after an imposed ban in 2016 was lifted at Furahisha Grounds in Mwanza, Tanzania on January 21, 2023. PHOTO | MICHAEL JAMSON | AFP


It all started like another verbal tug-of-war between political rivals which, if mishandled, could lead to a catastrophic flare-up, and many an observer said, “We’ve been here before,” and waited with bated breath for something terrible to happen.

The main opposition party in the country had stated its opposition to what it saw as a government ploy to scuttle what had seemed as a reasonably good effort by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to normalise the political situation by allowing political parties to do what political parties do, that is, politics.

This may sound bizarre to anyone not acquainted with the Tanzanian politics, for what do political parties do except politics?

Yes, in Tanzania we do things our own way, and we can have political parties that do not do politics, and a multiparty political system in which only one party exists in reality and all others make incoherent and cacophonous noises in the margins, without any effect in reality. We are Tanzanians, remember?

Read: ULIMWENGU: We’re paying dearly for failure to talk

This is the situation, which the late dictator John Pombe Magufuli had imposed on the country, one in which the constitution said there would be political pluralism, but the president insisted there would be no political competition because he was “busy at work” and there was no room for time-wasting.


After his mortal departure, his successor, Samia, has worked hard to undo his legacy while at the same time telling the world that she was the reincarnation of her predecessor.

She engaged her opposite number in the opposition, Freeman Mbowe, and the two cut a wholesome figure in pictures of utter civility and courtesy.

Many meetings and countless photo opportunities later, it started dawning on the opposition that the more matters changed the more they remained the same and that the ghost of Magufuli had not been sufficiently exorcised, and the reforms Samia had promised had been stalled.

The government was in effect rushing to parliament — itself a rubberstamp extraordinaire — Bills that would ensure that the status quo remained and that what Magufuli had sworn to effect was still going to be enshrined. That meant the government and its political principals in CCM were not prepared to level the playing field to allow the opposition any fighting chance.

So, the main opposition party, Chadema, announced it was calling for a mass demonstration to voice its opposition to what it said was Samia’s manipulation of the political situation to hoodwink the population into a bogus reform process completely devoid of any substance.

Read: Samia outsmarts Tanzania opposition

Immediately the demo was called, the usual suspects came up to threaten anyone who would demonstrate.

The governor of Dar es Salaam even announced that on the day decided upon by Chadema for the demonstration, 5,000 policemen and soldiers would be out in the streets “cleaning up” the city, in effect usurping the role of Commander-in- Chief of armed forces.

For, how does a mere governor of Dar es Salaam give an order for the armed forces to do what only the C-i-C is empowered to do? Usurpation or mere speaking out of turn?

This is not just idle speculation, for one day we might find out that some uppity official has ordered our forces on a mission that is inimical to the welfare of the state, thinking his or her bosses would approve. The governor even added a rider to the effect that “those who make themselves filth will be swept away,” another regrettably dehumanising utterance.

The streets of Dar es Salaam are indeed in a very sorry state, with most of them potholed to the point of impassability; substandard roads built by corrupt officials have become sewers carrying all manner of disgusting slimy water dangerous to the health of residents. But is this filth the duty of our soldiers to clean up or is this another example of misuse of our human resources?

As it turned out, some senior cops and opposition leaders kept a level of cool, allowing for understanding to emerge, and eventually — despite a number of occasions where officials seemed to talk out of both sides of the mouth — the planned march took place without incident.

Read: ULIMWENGU: Samia-Opposition détente is a jaw-jaw far better than war-war

So, what is the problem? Political demonstrations are a way to put into the public space a view or opinion, either agreeing with another view or opposing it.

Obviously, there are rules governing such activities, such as to not interfere with other people’s activities and to not cause a breach of the peace. That should be all; it should not come to a place where one needs police permission to carry out politics, for we have seen how irresponsible some police officers can be and how willing some rulers are in ordering policemen to break the law in favour of political bosses.

In 2001, we witnessed a shouting match between the Tanzanian police chief and the main opposition in Zanzibar in which the political leadership of the country kept quiet and at the end of the shouting, scores of people in Pemba and Unguja lay dead and others became refugees in Kenya.

This past week has shown us just how civilised groups can settle disagreements in amicable ways. Can we keep it up?

Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]