We are told historians cannot predict the future. They can only review the past. And they do so to illuminate the present.
So, here I am reading those who can unpack the present and peek at the future of my beloved country. ‘Tanzania: Everyone is scared’ reads an African Argument blogpost. The post is making rounds one the social media. As they say online, it is going viral.
It follows on the heels of an article from a former government official who is on the record as saying we have gone backwards fifty years in terms of democracy. “Tanzania”, writes Jenerali Ulimwengu,”is now a dangerous place for anyone who does not dance to the tune of a coterie of subaltern officers who think they are above the law, common decency and common sense, and that they can get away with murder.”
At the same time Maria Sarungi Tsehai queries: ‘Giving your honest opinion makes you a National Security Threat?!’ Elsewhere Elsie Eyakuze pleads, “Mr President, take Tanzanians back to where ‘utu’ was the glue holding us together.”
Beware when those who were born and bred around – or broke bread with – the echelons of power start to query the powers that be. It is a sign that either something is very wrong or we are about to witness things the gullible among us cannot even imagine.
Yet, on the positive side, it is an indication that something can be done about it. In fact by speaking when some of us can hardly utter a word is, in itself, doing something to change the situation.
No one really knows what the future holds for this country that has been basking in the glory of being perceived, for better or worse, as an island of peace. The past that some of us are so nostalgic about was not so clear cut. So, we have to be extra careful about how the present can feed from the past and inform or deform the future.
Let us revisit, for instance, a statement from the then Minister of Home Affairs of Tanganyika regarding the meetings of a small opposition party then known as the African National Congress (ANC). “Speakers on Congress platforms,” it read, “have abused the privilege of public speech by indulging in abuse of personalities and by disregarding the accepted conventions of political speaking.”
The government “has stated on many occasions,” the Minister continued, “and I repeat it now, that it has no wish to restrict freedom of speech or in any way to hinder the conduct of legitimate political campaign.” That was back, then, in the early 1960s.
Couched in a language of security, the statement went on to clarify that the Minister was “only contemplating the banning of public speaking at Congress public meetings, and not the banning of Congress itself as a political party.” So wide were his discretionary powers to define what was legitimate or not. After all, the newly independent country had not yet come up with its own Constitution.
Probably he was setting the standards for his successors. “In my capacity as Minister for Home Affairs”, he stressed, “I am responsible for the maintenance of peace and public order in Tanganyika and would be compelled to take executive actions if I considered that a threat to public order was created by irresponsible conduct on a public platform by Congress or for that matter by any other body.”
History tells us that the ANC lost the elections. Today it is no longer a political party in Tanzania. Why? Because the powers that be did not hearken to this warning from a member of the other ANC:
“Thus Tanganyika, stands today faced with two choices: She can become a state in which privileged elite has entrenched itself by banning other parties, whose society is stagnant and devoid of new ideas and where the lot of the masses remains static. Or Tanganyika can become a state in which the rule of the people is entrenched, in which society flourishes with new ideas, and confident of its ideology and goal is not afraid to look at itself or acknowledge its mistakes” – Frene Ginwala
Our future is open. Let us remember the past. And fix the present.