A strong man is good to find? Who’d want to live in an uptight society like Singapore?

Saturday April 18 2015

With the referendum on the proposed constitution safely postponed, Tanzanians are left with a cool six months to ponder issues of leadership as we anticipate the coming general election.

After all, getting up the energy to vote is largely an exercise in hope and imagination, as well as deep cogitation and sober judgement. Not to mention the effect of great campaign slogans.

These are incredibly exciting times, especially since so far the field remains wide open with many declarations of intent and no firm candidates yet.

Six months may be cutting it close, but it also guarantees that there will be no time to get fatigued by the candidates before it’s time for the ballot. The question is what kind of leadership style seems to be the popular choice?

When Lee Kuan Yew died earlier this year, the depth of feeling his passing elicited in some of the local press took me somewhat by surprise. The story of Singapore’s success under his stewardship took on almost mythical proportions. And comparative development raised its head.

Interesting as it was, direct comparisons between a hulking post-colonial African polity like Tanzania and a teacup of a city-state like Singapore are perhaps not particularly realistic.


Still, the underlying message is clear, and has been around for as long as we have been independent. There is a hankering for a “strong leader,” by which folks tend to mean a benevolent dictator in the guise of democratically elected president. Someone who can get things done, whatever the cost.

This is as close as we ever get to an ideological debate: To despot or not to despot, pros and cons? There is something dangerous in this line of thinking, something that is slyly hostile to democratic principles.

Let’s not tempt fate here: Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice. We got our founding father dose of benevolent despotism and it was a lucky roll of the dice. Mwalimu was exceptional. Imperfect, sure, but also inexplicably immune to the massively destructive moral collapses that overtake so many who are burdened with absolute power.

He didn’t have to politick in the information age. And manners meant something back in the 20th century — thuggery wasn’t a component of the political culture.

No repeat

There is absolutely nothing about the present conditions to suggest that this class act could be repeated, no matter what candidates say who reference him as their role model. In the media, we have been indulging in some very sweet nostalgia, with quotes and programmes about him increasing in frequency as we meander towards October.

I think it should serve as a reminder to us that the past is firmly past, even as we use Mwalimu as a moral measuring stick against which any contemporary candidate is sure to underachieve.

There’s the underlying chauvinism, highlighted by the fact that the master-list of self-declared presidential hopefuls is alarmingly devoid of women. As it is, the battle for the consideration of young candidates was fraught (it still is), even though we have history to prove that modern Tanzania was consolidated and administered largely by people who had just squeaked past their twenties.

Again, like then perhaps, this country is youthful and benefiting from women’s participation in the formal economy and public life. How can the idea of regressing to a strongman make sense?

Besides which, abdicating individual political responsibility in the hopes that one person could get it all right on behalf of all of us is wishful. Of course, electoral representative democracy is annoying: You have to show up and research and register and vote and refrain from the existential despair that creeps up on one when you observe politicians too closely.

But when it works it is the best defence available, to date, against, well, those things that happen in totalitarian regimes.

Ultimately, the safety and enjoyability of so-called authority are false. The affably cheerful and biddable citizen belongs in the very same archives that keep coughing up black-and-white footage of days gone by. What would happen if modern Tanzanians were tasked with living a regime as legendarily uptight as Singapore’s? No chewing gum, no moonshine, getting caned for minor infractions... oh wait, we already have that.

Having tasted our chaotic little freedom and tested collective actions to resist what we perceive as unwanted state interference, I very much doubt that we have what it takes to adapt to a strongman anyways.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report,

E-mail: [email protected]