Some of us are (obviously) living as citizens and others as subjects

Saturday April 20 2024
Kariakoo market

Tanzanians going about their business at the famous Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | MWANANCHI | NMG


Someone recently suggested that I should be grateful to be a Tanzanian citizen, considering how well my country is doing. To be fair, I have to be careful not to relish the happy accident of my birthright too much, lest I become nauseating.

But I understood the gist of the message: that my writings should show more appreciation for the relative peace and comfort of my country, compared to some others on the continent. I simply do not agree with the implication that I should, therefore, present my government more favourably than I do.

Spare the snark, spoil the state. Subtle and direct demands that I shush like a good, little girl make me wonder whether the issuer considers themselves a citizen or a subject of their state.

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I used to think, with the folly of youth and privilege, that we are all citizens. Hence my enthusiasm for election season when I go around seeking good debate and imploring people to vote no matter how hard the powers that be try to make it. Like taxes, elections are phenomenal and I am a big fan. The work to be done isn’t asking “if” we should do these things but “how.”

With the help of some miserable times and continued education from cynics in my life, I am coming to understand that not everyone feels the same way. We do not all regard the state with eagerness to engage and critique. We do not all think of ourselves as citizens of a republic. Some of us are living like subjects. This goes deeper than “mere” paternalism.


Since this is fundamental stuff, I want to point you in the direction of an online talk by Melissa Lane, Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, titled Ancient Greek Ideas of Equality under the Law.

In it she gives the example of Frederick Douglas, who begins his famous speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, by addressing his audience as “My fellow citizens.”In effect, as a Black man in 1850s America, Douglas accords himself the right of citizenship and equality with the audience that doesn’t want to recognise him as such nor give him uncomplicated franchise. It is quite the speech.

As Africans, we have to admit to a similar problem in these our inherited colonial nation-states. Citizenship is a “given,” yes, but it came at us sideways. It remains contentious and can be degraded or taken away at any time by the state.

Peaceful as it is, Tanzania is hardly immune to this problem. The 2024 Tuzo Ya Taifa Ya Mwalimu Nyerere Ya Uandishi Bunifu featured Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah as the guest of honour.

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Remember him, the kid who fled Zanzibar only to grow up into the second African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yeah. I mused online about the wonder — or is it irony — of watching him being feted by the same country that he had (more or less) to run from. If he had shushed like a good, little boy and not written what he knows, then someone more truthful about the human condition would have won the prize.

And we would have one less example to refer to when talking about the nuances, history and complexities of the Tanzanian identity, relationships to the state, and rights.

This Citizen/Subject distinction is no small thing, so we gon’ get into it further next week. Stay well.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]