A veteran and outspoken opposition leader who was branded a terrorist in a controversial court case against him, Freeman Mbowe’s destiny has been closely linked with his native Tanzania. The youngest of 10 children, Mbowe was baptised the day after the former British colony known as Tanganyika won its freedom in 1961, inspiring his parent’s choice of name.
His businessman father played an influential role in the independence movement and was close to Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanganyika. The pair fell out over the government’s support for “African socialism” in the years after Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania in 1964.
Following a mandatory stint of national service, Mbowe’s first job was at the central bank, where he spent four years while also trying to learn the ins and outs of the family business during his spare time. But as Tanzania grew increasingly socialist under Nyerere’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM), struggling to shake off years of failed economic experiments, calls for political reform began to mount.
In 1992, Nyerere’s successor president Ali Hassan Mwinyi opened the door to multi-party democracy, allowing opposition parties to contest elections three years later. Mbowe was among those championing a centre-right alternative to socialism, and at the age of 30 became the youngest founding member of the Chadema party.
He contested a presidential election in 2005, losing to the CCM candidate, but retained his parliamentary seat until 2020 when he was defeated in an election disputed by his party.
In March 2020, Mbowe and seven other opposition MPs and officials were convicted on charges related to a banned demonstration and ordered to pay 350 million shillings ($151,000) in penalties. The charges included sedition, unlawful assembly and inciting violence during a 2018 rally in which police fired live rounds to disperse Chadema supporters demanding accreditation in a local election.
A 22-year-old student who was not taking part was shot dead by a stray bullet from police. The demonstration had been banned by the government of former president John Magufuli, who was nicknamed “Bulldozer” for his uncompromising leadership style and his refusal to brook any dissent.
Optimism turns sour
Mbowe was a trenchant critic of Magufuli. His authoritarian regime was accused of jailing critics, passing draconian laws and taking a reckless approach to the coronavirus pandemic that saw him shun masks and vaccines.
The appointment of President Samia Suluhu Hassan in March, following Magufuli’s sudden death, sparked a measure of optimism among observers, as Tanzania’s new leader sought to reverse some of her predecessor’s autocratic policies. But the arrest of Mbowe and other senior Chadema officials last July ahead of a planned public meeting to demand constitutional reform prompted opposition warnings of a slide into “dictatorship.”
Mbowe was transferred to a prison in Dar es Salaam and charged with terrorism-related offences in a case that raised international concern about the state of democracy in Tanzania. But the case was dramatically dismissed on Friday, and a judge in Dar es Salaam ordered the release of Mbowe and his three co-defendants.