Unacceptable crime, excessive penalty: Two wrongs never made it right

Wednesday March 13 2019

A hangman's noose.

A hangman's noose. After a Tanzanian teacher was charged in court, he was found guilty of causing the death of a pupil, and, in a surprise development, sentenced to death by hanging. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JENERALI ULIMWENGU
By JENERALI ULIMWENGU
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Read this short passage from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use – in time the rod
More mocked than feared – so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose,
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum

Translated into English, the Bard’s words would read something close to this, with my apologies: “Having the cane in our hands, we have only brandished it in our children’s faces, too scared to use it on them, and after a while, the stick is more ridiculed than feared. Likewise, our laws, by not being applied, are themselves dead. Lawlessness grabs the law by the nose, juniors beat up their seniors, and all societal order is compromised."

These are the words of a fictitious ruler of Vienna, who is complaining about the breakdown of law and order in his city, where laxity in the application of the laws and regulations has led to indiscipline and license.

I suspect this was where the English got their saying, “spare the rod, spoil the child, ” meaning you hesitate to punish your young ones only at the risk of having them become spoiled brats.

This is something most of us are accustomed to, that is if you ever went to one of our schools. You would think that our so-called modern schools would be different from the ones we of a certain age went to, but no, they are exactly the same. It seems as if the cane is part of the teachers’ dress code, much like the swagger-stick is to a military officer.

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Many of us recall the smarting backsides we used to nurse for a couple of days every time we got the “six strokes of the cane” after we were caught misbehaving. But we also recall that there were two types of brandishers of the cane: Those who genuinely chastised you because they wanted to set you right, and those whose sadistic whims found expression in inflicting pain on those in their care.

The second variety of teacher was hated; I hate them to this day. The first category was made up of beautiful people with whom I maintained cordial relations for ever because I consider them to have been part of my very makeup.

The bad ones reared their ugly head once again recently, when a primary school teacher caused the death of a 13-year old pupil who had been suspected of stealing another teacher’s handbag. After the offending teacher was charged in court, he was found guilty of causing the death of the pupil, and, in a surprise development, sentenced to death by hanging.

Now, the death of the pupil raises serious questions about the disciplinary measures taken by teachers against their wards, especially the propriety of corporal punishment and in what circumstances it may be applied.

The second question is whether the extreme violence employed by the teacher in punishing a suspected pupil and causing his/her death amounted to premeditated murder, which is to my mind doubtful.

There is little doubt in my mind that the teacher in question is a sadist who should not have been allowed to handle this particular case. Unfortunately, we have many such individuals in positions of authority, and who will wield maximum brutality to deal with a misdemeanour, simply because their sense of proportion is seriously impaired, and maybe they should have undergone psychological assessment before they were placed in positions of authority, especially where they have to handle delicate customers.

Maybe this particular kind of teacher should be made to look after cattle, but only after getting the clearance of the Tanzania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

But the murder verdict and the death sentence? I think that is overstating the case, and not only because I am against the death sentence, which is still sanctioned by Tanzanian law. The sentence is simply incommensurate with the offence, painful as it was to the family of the deceased.

The level of criminality just does not fit the wrong committed, even if beating up a child to the extent of causing his death must come across as truly reprehensible.

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]

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