DAR ES SALAAM - Protests broke out in at least two Tanzanian towns, after opposition leaders called for nationwide demonstrations to oppose an assembly writing the country's constitution, leading to the arrest of several protesters, police said on Saturday.
The main opposition Chadema party called the protests after the government rejected calls to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, which is expected to pass a new constitution next week, the first salvo ahead of elections next year.
Police in the western town of Katavi said they arrested 16 opposition supporters on Thursday and charged them with illegal assembly.
“The suspects were arraigned on Friday and were released on bail,” Katavi police chief Dhahiri Kidavashari told Reuters on Saturday.
Chadema and two other opposition parties - the Civic United Front (CUF) and NCCR-Mageuzi - walked out of the Constituent Assembly in April after the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party trashed proposals for a new federal structure.
The opposition is seeking to challenge the dominance of CCM, which has been in power since Tanzania's independence from Britain in 1961. Divisions between the opposition parties have long hampered their effectiveness, but they say they have now embarked on talks to name a single election candidate next year.
Police said they had arrested at least six opposition supporters in the Tanzanian town of Mwanza for staging illegal protests and have beefed up security across the country.
There were no demonstrations in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, nor in the northern city of Arusha, an opposition stronghold. Television images showed a heavy police presence in Dar es Salaam, and in other major urban centers, including Dodoma where the assembly is meeting.
Advera Senso, national spokesman for the police, said a police ban on protests was still in force and warned that security forces would arrest anyone who tried to defy the order.
“All those who will participate in the banned opposition demonstrations will be dealt with as criminal offenders,” Senso told Reuters.
Leaders of Tanzania's three main opposition parties - Chadema, CUF and NCCR-Mageuzi - issued a statement on Friday accusing the government of denying citizens their democratic right to stage peaceful demonstrations.
“Police officers armed with live ammunition, anti-riot vehicles, horses and dogs are fanned out everywhere to try to prevent demonstrations and public rallies against the ongoing constitution process,” the opposition leaders said in a statement.
“The new constitution is being written under the barrel of a gun.”
The ruling CCM party spokesman Nape Nnauye on Friday dismissed opposition calls for demonstrations as a “cheap publicity stunt”.