Thousands of Chadema party supporters gather in the lakeside city of Mwanza after government lifts a ban on the party.

Tanzania’s main opposition party has held its first mass rally since the lifting of a 2016 ban, raising hopes of greater political freedom in the East African nation.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan this month lifted the ban on Chadema imposed by her hardline 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 through this public gathering,” Chadema Chairman Freeman Mbowe told the rally on Saturday, which was attended by thousands in the lakeside city of Mwanza.

The rally marked 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,” Mary Dismas, Mwanza resident, told AFP news agency.

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 were jailed.

There was early optimism when Hassan, Tanzania’s first female 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.

Tanzania opposition rally
Chadema officials said on Saturday a series of grassroots rallies are lined up [Michael Jamson/AFP]

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 on 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.”

aljazeera