Dar es Salaam — The decision by former long-serving Civic United Front (CUF) Secretary General Seif Sharif Hamad to switch allegiance to ACT-Wazalendo yesterday was received with cautious optimism, with some analysts pointing to a "more than meets the eye" move to re-engineer the fight for political space in the country.
The announcement which ended Mr Hamad's more than two decades' reign in CUF was a major political shift, especially in Zanzibar where the party enjoys a near-fanatical following. It also raises, significantly, the trajectory of ACT-Wazalendo, a young party whose youthful leader and Kigoma Urban MP Zitto Kabwe has almost single-handedly struggled to propel it to the national stage. Mr Kabwe was himself coy about the move when reached for comment, only saying that Mr Hamad and his team were welcome.
Word that Mr Hamad was set to ditch CUF following a bitter struggle with his comrade-turned-foe Prof Ibrahim Lipumba has been on the grapevine for a while until yesterday when a High Court ruling granting the latter a win over the war to control CUF offered the opportune moment to make the move.
And when it came, the doyen of opposition politics surprised many by choosing the smaller party instead of the main official opposition Chadema, whose leaders had openly lobbied him to join them. CUF provided Chadema's presidential running mate in the 2015 General Election through an opposition coalition called Ukawa.
Even though it was still early to draw conclusions, party insiders told The Citizen that consideration was given to join a platform where Mr Hamad will still play as the first among equals in the opposition luminaries heading towards the 2020 elections. Reactions were swift in Mr Hamad's base in the Isles, with party offices repainted and new flags raised to signify the change. Some party loyalists were seen burning CUF flags and carting away furniture from deserted offices.
Political leaders and independent analysts were quick to draw lessons from the shift, some saying it was long coming to end the divisive three years standoff with Prof Lipumba who continues to shrug off accusations that he was being used to wreck the opposition from within. Some said Mr Hamad's decision is not an isolated incident and should be looked from a perspective of the current political circumstances in the country.
Mr Muhidin Shangwe, a political science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, said Mr Hamad's decision was only a harbinger to a larger movement in the country's democratic struggles.
"If you look closely you'll realise that it is as if there were signs of joining forces among the opposition not only to respond to the "persecution" it received from state agencies but also to effectively counter CCM in the coming elections," said Mr Shangwe.
Mr Hamad himself interpreted the High Court's ruling as a continuation of "a well-crafted plan to sabotage CUF as a part of a larger plan to weaken the fight for democracy." He referred to the 'Zanzibar declaration of December 2018 where the parties committed to redoubling their joint efforts to defend their political rights.
"There has been talks of weak opposition for the last three years and I think the decision is set to change that narrative. In politics, one incident can change the direction of whole political situation," said Mr Shangwe.
Chadema national chairman Freeman Mbowe welcomed the move, saying it was "a tip of the iceberg." "Seif and his team are an important part in the struggle for political emancipation," said Mr Mbowe, who wished them best of luck in ACT-Wazalendo. Earlier, Mr Hamad said they found ACT-Wazalendo a fit-in with their ideals and that the party's conditions for acceptance were acceptable. He didn't reveal the conditions. But Mr Kabwe contradicted him saying: "They have joined freely and they will enjoy the same rights as other members."
The CCM Ideology and Publicity secretary, Mr Humphrey Polepole said people were free to join any political party they wanted but downplayed Mr Hamad's threat to the ruling party. "The opposition has a long way to go to able to pose a serious challenge to CCM," said Mr Polepole. For his part, Prof Lipumba termed Mr Hamad's move "both opportunistic and adventurous." He said he had betrayed his principles and political ideals. He added: "We had kicked him out anyway."
Dodoma University political scientist Paul Luisulie said defecting to another party was the only rational option remaining for Mr Hamad. He said that the decision is likely to take Mr Hamad back to the political height he enjoyed in the past.
"Here is a person whose support and influence, especially in the Isles, have never been shaken," he said.