By John Ikani
Tanzania’s main opposition leader Freeman Mbowe has been released after spending more than seven months in custody on terrorism charges.
In a judgement handed down on Friday, session justice Joachim Tiganga ordered Mbowe’s freedom alongside three other defendants after the prosecution moved to drop charges of terrorism financing and conspiracy.
Although the prosecution did not explain why it had decided to drop the charges, Mbowe’s release is seen as a sign that the government could be about to allow the opposition to operate more freely, analysts say.
Mbowe, 60, is the chairman of Chadema, one of Tanzania’s main opposition parties. He had been a staunch opponent of the late President John Magufuli, who was nicknamed the bulldozer and accused of cracking down on dissent.
When President Samia Hassan took power a year ago after Magufuli died, it was hoped that she would break from her predecessor’s authoritarian approach, but Mbowe’s arrest seemed to dash those hopes
The opposition leader was arrested in July along with a number of other senior party officials just hours before they were to hold a public forum to demand constitutional reforms in Tanzania.
His supporters had branded the case as a politically motivated move to crush dissent, and Mbowe has accused police of torturing him during his nearly seven months in custody.
However, Mbowe’s release could suggest President Samia is seeking to reconcile with the opposition.
In February, while attending the EU-Africa summit, she met another leading Chadema figure, Tundu Lissu. He has been living in exile since he survived an assassination attempt in 2017 in the capital Dodoma.
He was an MP and Chadema’s presidential candidate in 2020, when he returned to the country to campaign. He left again shortly afterwards, complaining of widespread fraud after Magufuli was declared the winner.
Some observers think that Mbowe’s release, along with the meeting with Mr Lissu, indicate that Tanzania’s ruling party, CCM, is signalling that change is underway.
In recent weeks some banned Swahili newspapers have been allowed to resume, including one owned by Mbowe.
Mbowe’s release comes just a week before President Samia marks her first anniversary in office.