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Isle of Peace into Pieces: A Call To Disarm

14 January 2011 14 January 2011 Tags: , No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Sitting allowance series by Kenyan artist, Petersen Kamawathi

The haunting omen of violence started 2011 with a common thread of police brutality in Tanzania and Tunisia. Under the shameless guise of “law and order”, this cloudy predicament stretching above Africa threatens to erase all the remaining traces of peace as a claim to fame. Never since the days of Habib Bourguiba has Tunisia seen such a wanton disregard for human life from it’s security forces. A parallel is felt on the other side of Africa, in Tanzania. These two countries, relatively unknown for large scale unrest, are plagued by a hideous manifestation of totalitarianism, the use of state security organs, notably the police and the so called anti-riot units, to suppress what would be considered perfectly understandable responses to unemployment and unacceptable living conditions.

At least 35 protesters, going by government figures, are reported dead in Tunisia. The International Federation for Human Rights reports that the death toll could be in excess of 50. President Ben Ali was forced to change his tune from calling the protest “terrorist activities” to “the situation requires a change, a drastic change” and “I understood you”. The recent disproportionately violent crackdown on the opposition in Arusha marked a heightened , and sadly, continuing tradition of preferring unreasonably forceful solutions over our trademark “peace and tranquility”. It is almost like the use of excessive force is a special showcase of governmental overreach to warn any and all who might even entertain the thought of protest, civil or otherwise. The opposition (CHADEMA) was denied a constitutional right to march in protest of corruption following an insidious last minute Machiavellian move, whose legality is questionable since the formal permission letter was not withdrawn and the denial was made through the media, in a move that can be argued to be calculated to cause mass confusion and grant the police an excuse to use violence.

Parliamentary immunity privileges, under the auspices of the Parliamentary Immunities, Powers and Privilege Act of 1988 , were completely disregarded. Members of Parliament and opposition leaders were beaten inhumanly, even the oft observed unwritten sensibility towards women were cast away. One particular sordid picture is that of a bloodied Josephine Mashumbushi, prompting one Twitter user (@1stworldmusic) unfamiliar with the Arusha situation to ask “What did this pretty lady do to deserve this?” Indeed, the question lingers with grave accusation to our police, was all that force necessary? Is Tanzania really still the land of peace and tranquility? It has to be noted that, only a few weeks ago another opposition party rally was summarily dispersed with teargas in Dar, under similarly totalitarian excuses. Is Tanzania turning into a fascist state?

Tunisia, that famed home away from home for the fathers of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is itself garbed in the style of tyranny the Palestinians, knowing oppression first hand, would easily decry. Online images of the Tunisian unrest provide a vividly grotesque picture of what is going on, completely showing people with their brains spilling out and mass hysteria. Not for the faint of heart. Tanzania, that famed home of the liberation movement of almost half of the southern tip of the African continent, from South Africa to Zimbabwe, Angola to Mozambique. The parallel is more than symbolic, is it marking a new decline in the last bastions of peace and tranquility in Africa? I resolve to at least expose these injustices for what they are, a threat to progress not only in these two countries, but to the least common denominator in African civility.

This is a saddening anti-climax for all the hopefuls in Africa who had such a great hope in the liberation movements. Stretching from the so called sub-Saharan Africa (how insulting) to the Maghreb which is more identified with the Middle East than Africa. Today Tanzania and Tunisia, two largely ignored countries in the western media, are all intertwined in the umbra of police brutality. The least we could do is expose these charades passing for responsible governments. Africans have the talent and resilience to reject this vortex of complacency and move forward towards a more promising governance. But that can only be done by putting in the work and risking out of comfort zones. At least the Tunisian students are protesting, what are the Tanzanian students and other sections of civil society doing?

But it is not enough to stop there. We must address this responsibility in a very specific manner, identifying precise weaknesses in our systems, and prescribing the exact corrective measures with a “no holds barred” attitude. Despite a slimy attempt at branding criticism as “unpatriotic”, the fact remain as Mark Twain, that quirky sage of unabashedly unrestrained literature pointed out “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”. Howard Zinn said “Patriotism is not supporting the government. Patriotism is supporting the principles that the government is supposed to stand for”.

With a common history of being largely ignored by their respective former colonial occupiers – the French in favor of Algeria and the British of Kenya-Tanzania and Tunisia, managed to chart an enviable path of social harmony. Sadly, this is becoming history, something to be referred to in the past tense, even as you read this.

Reports of students from University of Dodoma protesting are encouraging, especially given the previous image of a docile -almost party wing- and appeasing institution. Even as we urge the students to root their activism in a studied reason, dissent is in the best interest of our nation. A student’s uprising capable of wielding the right pressure without resorting to unnecessary violence – which could easily corrode the moral high ground- is a most welcome breath of fresh air. We as Tanzanians and Africans cannot be blind to a new colonialism just because the new colonials are our fellow Africans. The same spirit that was critical in mobilizing the masses against the British in Tanzania, and the French in Tunisia should be employed.

The labor movement showed its muscle during the election, it could do more to ensure that the powers that be are kept in check. Already we are hearing the Ben Alis, Jakaya Kikwetes and Benard Membes of this world retreating. Kikwete has pledged, against the Ian Fleming adage of “never say never”, that this automaton of sadist bloodthirst will not happen again. That remains to be seen. Benard Membe is reported acknowledging that the police used excessive force. If this is how shameful these acts are, imagine how much could be accomplished with a more organized protest, more informed populace, more daring citizenry and more focused activism.

So many things can be said about our apathy and how to tame it, our modal national character conflicted between an old disappointing love and a new unknown – if hopeful- beginning. The sheer lack of information, or even deliberate censorship and misinformation that gives spin-masters a field day would stagger scholars, let alone the nine out of ten who don’t have the right tools. So this endeavor of a more just Tanzania is not an easy task, progress in this context never is. But the rewards are more than worth it, and the challenge appears stronger than it really is from this side of history. We are seeing tremors already producing a much needed drift. This could be the decisive hour of attaining a paradigm shift. This is the time to stand up and be counted, the time (notice, not a time) of action, the time of “Put up or shut up”. Contribute in your own way, read or write something worthwhile, get involved in your trade union and community events, know your elected officials and engage them, strike peacefully if necessary. A critically examined dissent may be our only savior from this stagnating stupor we are facing.

“Down with the fence- sitting chameleons!” Thomas Sankara

Kathleen Bomani (Twitter: @katebomz) is a native of Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania. She is event curator for TEDxDar, a youth led initiative based on the belief in active discourse and public engagement in reaction to institutional constraints on creative development. She is a human rights activist and blogs about Human Rights, Africa & the creativity that is sweeping across the continent on her website at katebomz.tumblr.com. she can be reached at kate.bomz@gmail.com.
The Art work is part of the “Sitting allowance series” by Kenyan artist, Petersen Kamawathi

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