It may sound like someone trying to pick a fight for nothing when we are faced with serious humanitarian issues, but it is something worth making mental notes on for future conversations. That is why I felt rather uneasy at some of the comments offered by the Dar es Salaam commentariat when news of the floods and landslides hit us a week ago in the northeast of the country, occasioning loss of lives and widespread infrastructural destruction.
Our people lead precarious lives, even in the best of times, having to scrounge for the uncertain sustenance offered by outmoded agricultural and animal-husbandry practices that can no longer support a galloping demography pressing on a fragile ecology. What happened around Mount Hanang is just another reminder we may not have needed if we had carried ourselves with greater awareness of climate issues.
Of course, someone could say that hindsight is the best sight one develops after the event, but then, what else do we have to go on? When situations have been analysed over and over again without affording us the knowledge and wisdom to take timely action to avert the disasters, we have been warning ourselves against, a sense of helplessness sets in.
Now, with that sense of helplessness, people tend to go helter-skelter with their logic, asking untoward questions that could be annoying indeed. Such questions include: What were all those delegates accompanying the president going to do in Dubai? Are they all going to have a role to play? Who is paying for them or are they being paid for by their constituencies — and exactly what are these constituencies?
A lot of these questions are caused by the paucity of information on what the government is doing and what it is up to. Running almost concurrent to the Dubai COP meeting, the country was gripped by another fever of interrogations, this one about the whereabouts of the vice-president, who had not been seen in his more regular outings, which people are used to when he is in Dodoma or Dar es Salaam. Where was he now?
The founding president of this country, Julius Nyerere, was so irked by the character of the chattering brigades of Dar es Salaam that he dubbed it Rumourville. The description was more than apt because at the time of this epithet Dar was indeed a beehive of whispers, rumours, tittle-tattle, approximations and gossips.
It is true that there was much ado in official circles; people were either resigning or fired quietly, and some were travelling out of the country unannounced. Since the official sources of information were the only ones people depended upon to give credible information and they did not, the people designed an alternative news machine, and this gave them whatever they wanted to hear.
It took time before the situation calmed down, but not before a few prominent members of the public had been made to undergo the shame of having their names read out on national radio, with the label of “Rumourmongers” every day at the opening of the broadcasting service at 6am and closing at midnight.
We have now gone full circle to that period. Government has neutered the media to such an extent that most of the newspapers, radio and television stations have redesigned themselves to serve as choruses to sing the praises of the President, VP and Prime Minister, and whichever top dog happens to be around in a local situation. It is nauseating to listen to these empty praises. To an ear trained to discern when people are licking boots, it should prompt someone to say “shut up!”
Now, I have been informed that all this cajolery is done as a “strategy,” and that “it works”. I wanted to know what that was, and I was told that some people in the media — some of them formerly excellent at their job — have realised that the people in power are inneed of public relations operatives to promote their “success stories,” and thus former journalists are brushing the boots of officials they should be investigating for corruption or rights abuses, or both.
The upshot of all this is that newsmen and women start practising self-censorship, which is the lowest state a journalist can descend to. He or she tries very hard not to listen to anything negative about a ruler, because that would be a “career-threatening” activity — “career” in this case meaning not journalism but some district chief of this or that, or spokesman of somebody or other.
So, in the absence of a real media scene — a void created by absent-minded state officials — the news-starved population is grazing on whatever they can lay their snouts into, including crazy, crazy things that sound believable, readily put out by a wildering variety of social media flunkeys. They will pick on the number of Tanzanians in Dubai, but that is neither here nor there, because this conference is really huge. The funding mechanisms have been worked out to ensure maximum attendance by activists, ambassadors, publicists, aficionados and hangers-on; there is nothing new.
As soon as the Hanang floods news broke, the president was on the first plane back, luckily, for otherwise the hullaballoo would have been deafening. As for the vice-president, we may soon get real news, perhaps.
A word of advice to government types: Free your media and you shall be free!