There is an inside joke with sinister undertones going around in Tanzania these days. If you do something really good — or conversely, do something terrible — where someone can see it, a wag in your vicinity might respond with “mitano tena!” meaning “another five (years).”
This was a slogan used by the ruling party CCM during campaign rallies in the 2020 general elections encouraging us to vote the incumbent into his second and final term.
We have known for a while now that this slogan would probably pop up during this second and final term to try and encourage Tanzanians to embrace the idea of extending the presidential term limit. And lo and behold: it has. Specifically, several members of parliament from the ruling party have offered impassioned speeches in the House with this in mind. What if we give President Magufuli another five years in office, they ask?
No, thank you. This fills me with the same anxiety that I get when I hear about seven-year-old children who still breast-feed. It ain’t right.
I understand the thinking behind having an incumbent in power for over a decade. A long stay in office can offer predictability which is usually supposed to make things stable. Since most of us want the calm of a life in which formal politics do not intrude too much, this can seem very appealing.
However, this stability and continuity is a false promise for the simple reasons that people decay and times change.
People decay because of pressure and stress, we are flawed creatures and power corrupts. If you think of high office as exposure to the terrible forces of power, you can see why people come out grey-haired. It takes a toll on an individual, like hanging around a nuclear reactor. And like radiation, too much exposure causes mutations in people, with ugly results. Knowing this the very best people in society avoid become politicians.
If the very best people don’t become politicians, how is it a good idea to let whoever is left over stick around power for too long?
Term limits are also a survival and maintenance mechanism necessary for the modern state. They provide for a good turn-over rate. Simply put, society changes over time thanks to technology. The rate of change has become measurably faster in the past two centuries, almost overwhelmingly so, because innovation is evolving at an increasing pace. In order to have the flexibility and responsiveness to cope with this, we have to replace our public institutions with individuals who are contemporary.
Case in point: a country with a head of state who does not understand social media in this day and age suffers a handicap. She or he is demonstrating a form of illiteracy that has little place in the 21st century. It may be an indicator that there are other socially dangerous gaps in their knowledge such as how to do cost-benefit analysis. This will affect their ability to cope with real-world threats such as global pandemics, or to come up with appropriate revenue and taxation policies in a vulnerable economy in a poor country. For example.
Mine is not an ageist argument. I prefer a young and vital head of state, but effective managers of large endeavours like a country know that youth are the drivers of change and that you have to have a good team in place regardless of age.
Due to historical problems with patriarchy, it is hard to find Africans over 55 to 60 years old with this particular competency. As a result, we suffer. One way to mitigate this problem is to keep the turnover rate of incumbents reasonable so that with every half-generation the gap between the head of state and the votership is not rendered ridiculous.
Presidential and other political term limits are good for the political and mental health of votership too. The “cry” for a strongman isn’t an indication of strength so much as admission of fatal weakness.
We don’t talk nearly enough about the deleterious effects of the dependency that is part and parcel of patriarchy. If someone calls for a strongman, I ask myself: What are they lacking in their life as adults? Is it a developmental gap? Unresolved daddy issues? Whatever it is, this is not a trait that leads to healthy societies. We should look into that.
The United Republic of Tanzania may have its faults but it is designed to outlive its incumbent presidents, if not its incumbent political party. So far, so good: we are on a progressive track and have a chance at making this national project of ours work. Clinging to any incumbent will put us on a regressive path.
And that is what makes the “mitano tena” joke so sinister. Many people are using that term with absolutely no sense of irony, with the conviction of true believers or morally-deficient opportunists. It is unfortunate.
Many Tanzanians, however, are being horribly sarcastic when they say that. Considering we have given up on formal scientific polling as a mechanism to understand what the people want, really, the powers that be ought to pay attention to the informal mechanisms. Powers that be know why, and we know they know why “mitano tena” has become a trend.
The best time to drop this issue is now, while we can still use non-violent means like humour to talk about it.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]