Tanzanian opposition leader and former presidential candidate Tundu Lissu returned home after more than two years in exile in Europe to a cheering crowd on Wednesday, after the government lifted a ban on political rallies.
A former lawmaker and a fierce critic of the government, Lissu initially left the country to seek treatment abroad after he was shot 16 times, mostly in his lower abdomen, in his car by unknown gunmen in the administrative capital Dodoma in 2017.
He had been arrested eight times in the year leading up to the attack.
Lissu was welcomed by a large gathering of his supporters at the Julius Nyerere International Airport, after flying in from Brussels before making his way to address a rally in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam.
He was seen waving his Chadema party flag while sitting atop a car as he greeted supporters who had gathered along the roads and were following him on foot, cars and motorcycles.
Lissu had returned for a few months in 2020 to challenge then-President John Magufuli in an election. However, shortly after the election he fled to the residence of the German ambassador after receiving death threats, and then left the country again.
His return follows President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s announcement this month of the end of a ban on political rallies imposed by her hardline predecessor Magufuli, in an overture to the opposition.
The Chadema party on Saturday held its first mass rally since the lifting of the 2016 ban, led by its leader Freeman Mbowe in the lakeside city of Mwanza.
The government’s move has been cautiously welcomed by rights groups and the opposition as a boost for democracy, with Hassan overturning some of Magufuli’s authoritarian policies.
Lissu was last in Tanzania in late 2020 contesting the election against Magufuli, who died just five months after winning his second term. The victory was disputed and the opposition called for protests. Lissu took refuge with diplomats after threats to his life, before escaping the country.
Under Magufuli, who was first elected in 2015 as a straight-talking man of the people, political gatherings were outlawed, opposition leaders detained and media cowed.
Nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for his authoritarian leadership style, Magufuli had hardline policies and an uncompromising style of governance that saw Tanzania’s reputation for stable democracy in the region badly damaged.
Since the sudden death of Magufuli in March 2021, Hassan has reversed some of his most controversial policies and promised reforms long demanded by the opposition.
But hopes dimmed in July that year when Mbowe was arrested on charges of “terrorism financing”. He was released after seven months but some critics labelled Hassan a “dictator”.
She sat down face to face with Lissu in Brussels in early 2022, again buoying hopes that change could be on the horizon.
Earlier this week, Tanzania’s information minister said the government was planning to amend a media bill that critics say restricts freedom of expression, but gave no details of the proposed changes.
“President Samia Suluhu Hassan, through her government and party, have shown they are ready for a new journey. We need to demonstrate that we are also ready for that,” Lissu said.
“I am coming home for the new beginning of our nation.”