If the intention was to terrify Tanzanians into a subdued silence, there might have been a miscalculation.
To say that the political atmosphere has changed in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Tundu Lissu would be an understatement.
As he fights to recover from this cowardly attack, each morning Tanzanians have been waking up and offering prayers for him on our social media. This gesture of solidarity and love has no creed nor political affiliation, no gender nor class. Conversations that we were having in a much more subdued manner have now become less subdued.
It has been a few years of us confronting each other over what we think patriotism entails and what style of governance we want as a consequence.
Progressive vs conservative, democratic republicanism vs authoritarian republicanism, laissez-faire versus economic dirigisme — this is the encounter we are having.
We’re down to the wire on the basics: To have an opposition or to suppress it? Does patriotism mean being blindly obedient to the powers that be — servile, really — or does it mean embracing critical thinking and checks and balances? What are the legal boundaries of free speech really doing for us?
A large part of the luxury to have this internal dialogue is due to people who assiduously and professionally do their jobs in the civic spaces that we have.
Be it a professional military, guerrilla teachers who teach pregnant schoolgirls and young mothers basic life-skills because education is a right in Tanzania, journalists who refuse to be co-opted, civil servants who still go to work even when salaries haven’t shown up for months.
Flawed individuals I am sure, but the kind of everyday heroes countries depend upon. Tundu Lissu was part of this set of people who do the work that needs doing and to the best of their ability because of principle.
And so in this space it has been reasonable to feel safe, to enjoy some breathing room and exploit the full range of our diverse thinking. This doesn’t mean we have ignored the dangerous rise of violence and thuggery and crime in our society and its indiscriminate use.
A couple of weeks ago Jenerali Ulimwengu’s column shone a small torch on our dark underbelly, expressing the concerns that we are grappling with right now.
When Tundu Lissu was attacked in such a thuggish manner, it hurt in a deep and tender place where we keep our belief in the nature of our country. This transgression may have given we the people the courage we have been looking for.
So it has been a long few days. We wake and pray for Tundu Lissu’s recovery, send messages of comfort to his family. We scour the statements of pundits and officials alike for any hints of a breakthrough in the investigation.
We use biting humour to tell the authorities that it will not be acceptable for Lissu’s assailants to continue to be “unknown” indefinitely. Several theories have already been offered as to who might commit such an act and why, ranging from the tin-foil hat variety to the chillingly plausible. The public chatter is incessant, with unprecedented tone of defiance giving it impetus.
Though government spokespeople have made polite noises of dismay, nary a day goes by without some threat of disciplinary action against outspoken MPs, or raising of the Cybercrime Act, libel laws, et cetera. This is an unfortunate misreading of the situation.
It is especially ill-advised in a regime whose claim to moral legitimacy rests on a draconian interpretation of the Tanzania First sentiment. Well, then, put Tanzania first!
The ones who have embarrassed the state are not we the people; it is these “unknown” assailants that we are all waiting ever so impatiently to know. It is our security forces who can spot a car with expired insurance from a mile away but apparently cannot protect an elected legislator inside the nation’s capital city! Oh no sirs, we are not the embarrassment in this situation.
We the people are simply being ourselves — deliberately pacific, discussing what is at stake, keeping track of which law offices are being broken into, caring somewhat less about which mining company is in the government’s crosshairs this week than we do about how much time it takes to apprehend “unknown” gunmen.
The chatter, our embrace of our freedom to talk — precisely what Tundu Lissu stood for — isn’t going anywhere. If the intention was to terrify Tanzanians into a subdued silence, well. There might have been a miscalculation.