There is a correlation between freedom and reading books.
African governance systems — if you can call them that —are curious animals to deal with if you are intent on making sense of what is going down around you.
We inherited constitutions, laws and procedures from the departing colonial masters and promised we would maintain, and even improve on them with a view to enhancing them and making them serve our people better.
But all too often we find ourselves in situations that seem like we are trying to fit square pegs in round holes or vice versa. In this case, the holes are the systems, the constitutions, the laws and the procedures, while the pegs are our rulers.
It is very difficult to find an African ruler who believes in things like the rule of law, respect for the constitution, open government, transparency, respect for others’ opinions, freedom of expression, human rights, gender equality and all those other mythical values by which the rest of the world sets store.
The African ruler is like Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Hissene Abre, and Samuel Doe, if he can have his way. The purported democrats we see among us are generally fake, because they pay lip service to democracy when they cannot put up an argument against it but will renounce it every time they can find an alibi.
Alibis abound, from the need to preserve “national security” to the imperative of speedy economic development, both of which brook no dissention or protracted negotiation. The shortcut is the route of choice, and it is the ruler who knows where the shortest shortcut lies.
But this is a fallacy, because most of our rulers are clueless, and most have come to power using the most devious routes, inglorious shortcuts.
Most of the time rulers of this ilk abhor transparency and debate, because they do not want to be accountable for what they do; they cannot stand scrutiny because they are deficient in some crucial way, either in their intrinsic ability or in their probity.
Inspection of their intellectual ability would lay bare their insufficiency in thought processes, while poring over their activities would reveal that they are thieving scoundrels.
So they prefer to bark orders, to give directives and to threaten whoever will challenge them. Their main strength is the police and the armed forces. I suspect that of all the titles they give themselves — President, Chairman of the Cabinet, Chairman of the Party, Chancellor of the University, Head of the Boy Scouts, etc — it is the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces they cherish most.
They seldom exercise their minds. It is hard to come by an African ruler who bothers to put pen to paper to, say, describe his favourite hobby, whether it be beekeeping or jogging.
You will hardly catch an African ruler giving a speech about the importance of reading books in order to hasten economic development, even though these rulers must know — if they know anything at all — that there is no society in the world which ever achieved economic progress whose people did not read books. None, ever.
The fear of books, which has been transmitted to our people through mental osmosis, derives from our rulers’ failure to connect with the sources of knowledge and wisdom, having suffered books only as props to help them defeat the examiner in a contest that takes place only once or twice in a semester.
They thus missed the sweet, liberating magic of an Achebe, a Soyinka, a Ngugi, a Steinbeck, a Marquez, a Mark Twain or an Allende etc.
The other source of the fear of books comes from the unstated suspicion that a public that reads will get out of control, because it travels to places it has never been, mingles with people who left centuries ago, and is touched by ideas that move mountains without earthmoving equipment.
Our rulers know that in order to control the minds of their people they must keep them from books that give them anything more than functional literacy.
So, my dear friends, if we want to keep our minds sharp and avoid the creeping deadening of our intellects, we must contrive to engage in the clandestine activity of reading books, as widely as we can.
Only make sure you are not caught.
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]