Tanzania’s main opposition party Chadema has said its leader and other members were arrested before a planned conference to demand constitutional reforms.
Freeman Mbowe and 10 Chadema members were rounded up overnight in the northwestern port city of Mwanza, the party said on Twitter early on Wednesday.
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“We condemn the repression of the rights of Tanzanians with the strongest force. These are signs that the dictatorship that existed during the rule of President John Magufuli continues,” it charged.
“Freeman Mbowe was accosted by an army of police officers in his hotel when he arrived at 2:30am and was arrested together with other leaders.”
While the other Chadema members were taken to the Mwanza police station, there was no information about Mbowe’s whereabouts.
“We want the police to come out and say where the chairman is and why he was arrested,” Chadema said.
There was no immediate comment by the police.
‘Cannot continue with old order’
The arrests come four months after Tanzania’s first female President Samia Suluhu Hassan took office in March following the sudden death of her predecessor Magufuli.
There have been high hopes that Hassan would usher in a change from the “autocratic rule” of her predecessor, who was nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising leadership style.
Chadema’s former presidential candidate, Tundu Lissu, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, tweeted that Hassan’s rise following Magufuli’s death in March had brought “hope that Magufuli’s reign of terror and war on democracy would end.
“Last night’s arrest of Chairman Mbowe and Chadema leaders has dashed any such hope. It’s now time for nationwide protests and international isolation of her regime.”
The arrests took place after Mbowe pledged to go ahead with a meeting on constitutional reforms despite Mwanza provincial authorities banning public gatherings to contain the spread of coronavirus.
“We cannot continue with the old order,” Mbowe said in a video published on Twitter on Monday.
“We have the right to meet but are arrested, beaten, accused and taken to court for two to three years and then freed.
“If they want to arrest all members of the Chadema party, let them first expand the jails because we are all ready to be arrested and will not request bail.”
In April, Hassan had reached out to the opposition and promised to defend democracy and basic freedoms in the country.
In November 2020, several top opposition leaders including Mbowe were briefly detained after calling for mass protests against what they charged was a rigged election that returned Magufuli to power for a second term.
The deeply COVID-sceptic Magufuli died in March of what the authorities said was a heart condition but his political opponents insisted he had contracted the disease.