Last week, masked armed men, believed to be security officers, abducted Mdude Nyangali, a fierce critic of Tanzania President John Magufuli.
Nyangali was snatched off the road by the gunmen in Mbozi, in south Tanzania. He had been denouncing Magufuli, and labelled him a "hypocrite" in a Twitter post a few hours before his disappearance.
Nyangali reappeared days later, battered, but his disappearance echoed the case of journalist Azory Gwanda, who went missing in November 2017. The whispered – and still unconfirmed – story in Tanzanian media circles, is that someone finished him off and threw his body in the crocodile-infested Rufiji River.
Ironically, at the time he disappeared, Gwanda, who was a journalist with Mwananchi Communications, had just published a series of articles on a string of unsolved murders of local government officials and police officers by unidentified assailants on motorcycles.
Gwanda’s disappearance, critics say, is part of a crackdown on the opposition, free media, and human-rights activists the government unleashed over the past two years. But maybe it is something more.
In 2018, opposition legislator Zitto Kabwe tasked the government to explain the fate of at least 380 people who had been abducted and disappeared in a government crackdown against suspected Islamists… That’s a lot!
On this, Tanzania would do well to revisit the history of its neighbour Uganda. In late 1978 Uganda military dictator Idi Amin invaded Tanzania’s Kagera Region.
In the fight back, Tanzania teamed up with the array of Ugandan exiles, and took the war to Amin, kicking him out of power in April 1979.
Amin perfected the art of disappearing people, and taught us the damage it does. For a government intent on building an infrastructure of terror, perhaps nothing is more effective than disappearing people. The vain hope that every footstep in the night toward the home could be the disappeared returning (or the tormentors coming to pick another victim), the helplessness (you can’t even go to authorities to ask for the body), paralyses in ways few other forms of violence can.
Done at scale, disappearances create a vortex, in which all other forms of atrocities are possible, because somehow they are a “lesser” evil.
Countries ravaged by conflict and repression, can still heal. Murderers and torturers can be tried, and given amnesty. With disappearances, all that is very hard to do, because there are no bodies. The wounds are never closed.
In December 1980, Uganda had an election that, as usual, was stolen. The Uganda Peoples’ Congress Milton Obote, who was ousted by Amin in a coup in January 1971, returned to power.
Uganda remained gripped by violence, and Obote’s government, fighting a war against Yoweri Museveni’s and other rebel groups, continued to commit atrocities.
In parliament the besieged Democratic Party opposition fought on noisily and bravely. On one of his rare appearances in parliament, the articulate Obote confronted the opposition over accusations of runaway abuses.
In a remarkable moment, he said something like: “During Amin’s time, people disappeared and their bodies were never found. Today, at least Ugandans find the bodies of their relatives, and give them decent burials.”
It was a shocking glimpse into the moral abyss into which the country had sunk. The greater tragedy, though, is that there was a grain of truth to it. Tanzania doesn’t need to rediscover that hell.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]