The crossing of swords between bureaucrat and cleric seems to be intensifying in Tanzania, and the state is now showing that it can flex more muscle than the men of the cloth can ever hope to possess.
You may remember that around Lent and the Easter holidays, the two biggest Christian churches here issued communications to their faithful reminding them, as is their wont, of their obligations to God and man, urging them to live good and wholesome Christian lives and look out for their fellow human beings, especially the weak among them.
That is common fare, one might say, which one would expect from the Catholics and the Lutherans on such an occasion, which, if my understanding of the Scriptures serves me well, celebrates the victory of Life over Death. But the clerics went farther, and ventured into an arena government agents claim is beyond the writ of the word of God.
Why? Apparently it is because the clerics of both churches, in their pastoral letters, decried the deteriorating human-rights situation in Tanzania; the state suppression of political activities by the opposition; the constriction of civic spaces; the muzzling of the media through bans and fines; the disappearance of journalists; the attempted assassinations of opposition figures and the pervasive “state of fear” under which Tanzanians now live.
In my view, this was a most accurate depiction of the state of this nation, but the response of the rulers has been to stonewall and go deeper into denial.
Far from adopting the ostrich’s alleged behaviour, one would have thought that those in power would have taken time to do some soul-searching and ask themselves whether these allegations are indeed true.
If they found them to be false they would have been required to offer a public rejoinder and helped to disabuse the populace. If they found them to contain a modicum of truth, they would have been compelled to offer an apology and to take measure to redress the situation.
But no, not this government. Rather than deal with the message, government agencies are busy shooting the messenger. It’s becoming clear that every time anybody accuses the state of some infraction, government agencies trot out with a raft of queries about the accuser’s shortcomings.
They will ask if that person or institution has paid his or its taxes; whether they are really citizens of the country; if they are not involved in illicit drugs, or such other things that government should investigate as a matter of course and involving all citizens, not only those who have criticised the authorities.
One church has been given a few days to show it is duly registered and also to “cancel” its letter to its faithful. What arrogance!
In this way, they have prostituted the function of paying taxes, which should be the proud duty of every citizen, not a stick with which to beat those saying you are hurting your own people. The way these officials are going about these matters, it is okay not to pay taxes or to peddle drugs as long as you do not criticise the government.
According to the disciple Mathew, when Jesus was preaching and healing in Capernaum, the Temple tax collectors came to Peter and asked him, ‘Does your teacher pay the Temple taxes?’
And Peter answered, “Of course.”
When Peter went into the house, Jesus asked him, “Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of this country or the foreigners?” Peter answered, ‘The foreigners.’
Though Jesus seemed to agree that only foreigners should pay Temple taxes, he directed Peter to go to the lake and drop in a line. “Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my Temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.”’ (Mathew, 17:24).
Jesus knew the Pharisees were looking for an excuse to do him in, and he was not going to offer it too easily.
I hope the churches currently under attack will allow the people they defend to be their fish-with-the-coin-in-the-mouth, with which they can pay their taxes, if they owe any. Then they should continue saying, without fear, that the emperor has been naked all this time. They should never retract their messages.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]