Tanzania authorities finally produced investigative journalist and author Erick Kabendera in court on Monday and charged him with a crime.
However, it was not the crime everyone was expecting they would slap on him. After they grabbed him from his home in Dar es Salaam on July 29, the police said they were investigating Kabendera’s citizenship status. On Monday, however, they charged him with money laundering, tax evasion, and assisting an organised crime racket.
Kabendera is easily the brightest star in his generation of journalists in Tanzania. But that is no immunity.
Tanzania is a perilous place for journalists (and civil society activists, opposition politicians, and even independent researchers) since President John Magufuli came to the throne four years ago.
But it wasn’t paradise either before that under Jakaya Kikwete, Benjamin Mkapa, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, or even “Saint” Julius Nyerere who we and the world still admire, and we feel we are betraying Mother Africa whenever we must point out his many faults.
The difference is that in those days, it was the traditional media repression and mistreatment of journalists: A few slaps on the ears if at all, a week in jail, a standard charge of publishing false news or sedition, and after a couple of appearances in farcical court sessions, the case would be dropped, or a mild conviction handed down.
In the last four years, the old repression formbook has been thrown away, and something with hammers and tongs has taken its place.
It was evidenced dramatically in November 2017, when journalist Azory Gwanda, who was investigating mysterious killings and disappearances in his Rufiji region, went missing.
It was feared that he had been “finished off” and fed to crocodiles. Recently, the government finally said he was indeed dead.
Last year, when the New York-headquartered Committee to Protect Journalists Africa programme coordinator Angela Quintal (a South African journalist) and sub-Saharan Africa representative Muthoki Mumo (a Kenyan journalist) went to Tanzania to sniff around, they were detained, interrogated, and eventually thrown out. In the past, they would have just have bundled nosy media freedom activists on the next plane out and left it at that.
However, in trying to frame Kabendera as a “foreigner” masquerading as a citizen, the Magufuli government was reading from a script that has been standard for the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) since Mwalimu Nyerere stepped down in 1985. Nyerere was a doctrinaire pan-Africanist and had a very progressive view of citizenship.
In 2001, the Tanzanian government stripped the then much younger, but no less pesky, publisher, Jenerali Ulimwengu, of his citizenship.
Strange, because they don’t come more Tanzanian than Ulimwengu, who had held various government positions, including being a Member of Parliament, before going into the annoying business of journalism.
Of course, it is possible that Ulimwengu, today also a columnist for the Nation Media Group regional publication The East African, could have walked off a ship docked in Dar es Salaam port as a child and wandered into the Tanzanian bushes. But no, he was born on April 4, 1948 in Ngara, in the Kagera region of the country.
This tendency to label strong-headed journalists foreigners, is almost uniquely Tanzanian in East Africa. There is the occasional fraudulent pastor, and some gold-chain-wearing con man who will be ousted in Kenyan as an “illegal alien”, but you will never hear of a person commonly thought to be a citizen stripped of citizenship. And most definitely not a journalist.
In Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, the idea is anathema, and in Rwanda it wouldn’t be uttered. This even though journalism is still a painful job in these countries.
Nothing in Tanzania’s history would have prepared anyone for what happened to Ulimwengu in 2001. At one point, Nyerere’s Tanzania basically ruled that Africans who had been living in the country as refugees for a certain period were citizens, end of story.
Tanzania led the fight against apartheid and Portuguese colonialism in southern Africa. It was home to thousands of South African and Ugandan exiles, and liberation movements. It was the country where tribalism went to die.
So, what happened? It’s hard to say, and scholarship in the years to come could shed some light. However, the big ideas that defined the Tanzania of Nyerere, could also be the source of its current flashes of xenophobia, and the tendency to make critics stateless.
It seems there is still a limited context for understanding why an MP or journalist could robustly point to state failings and national frailties. In the minds of the dyed-in-the-wool CCM power class, for anyone to fault the Great Tanzanian Nation, it can only be because they are “not one of us”.
Problem is that that Great Tanzanian Nation no longer exists. It changed — or even died. The journalism of people like Kabendera, ironically, is driven partly by a need to resurrect that glorious past. They probably are the ones on the right side of history.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]