The general election in Tanzania is fast approaching and the people are on tenterhooks. But rather than lay out solid electoral programmes, ideologies and vision, the government of President John Magufuli of Tanzania has rolled out new laws that restrict the media from reporting foreign contents “without permission.” In addition, foreign journalists are now prohibited from reporting in the country unless accompanied by government officials with local journalists now legally obliged to seek state officials’ endorsement if they must cover the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
The issue is indeed disturbing and every lover of mankind the world over, must speak out in condemnation of it in the strictest terms, because if we remain passive, it will set a precedent whereby his successor in the future will do worse in the manner of the indignities the current Egyptian president – Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – is meting out to journalists and all manner of critics, real and imagined, by having them incarcerated incommunicado without trials and denied treatment. To this power-drunk general, all Egyptians are ‘suspects’ and ‘traitors,’ irrespective of the fact that he, himself, had committed criminal disloyalty: a crime of high treason, by overthrowing a legitimately elected government. Now he is on the rampage like the dog who wouldn’t heed to the hunter’s whistle.
I am incensed and sickened by what is going on in Tanzania, for what’s the essence of journalism if its practitioners must be teleguided and every article vetted before publication? Where is the journalistic independence to investigate and craft a story you consider right, from professionalism standpoint? In his brinkmanship, President Magufuli has forgotten the eternal aphorism that truth suppressed to earth will rise again. It is not advisable to censor the fourth estate, for censorship, as the late Jorge Borges reasoned, is “the mother of metaphor.” By this, the Argentinian author is implying that writers and journalists would always look for subterfuge or alternative strategies to get their message across if restrained and driven underground. This was the situation in my own country, Nigeria, between 1993 and 1998, when the military dictator, General Sani Abacha set his blood-thirsty secret agents on journalists, resulting in these brave professionals being driven underground, where they churned out a tsunami of stinging articles that were to haunt the uncreated conscience of the evil dictator. In addition, many of Latin American journalists and authors – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar and so on – were all exiled from their homelands, but they remained irrepressible and were able to show through their literary masterpieces that suppressing ideas do not make them go away.
President Magufuli’s muzzling of press freedom is simply a ploy to help him manipulate the results of the forth-coming election. That’s why foreign journalists and observers must “be accompanied” by government officials. In addition, the local press had previously pilloried the government for its inability to rein in the coronavirus pandemic. No wonder, therefore, that these reporters must now seek approval from a discredited government ignorant of the niceties of journalism. The government’s scorecard in the current COVID-19 pandemic is an unequivocal zero, and instead of engaging his citizens in preventive measures, President Magufuli perambulates up and down the local Pentecostal churches and mosques urging worshippers to have faith in “Jesus who has power to burn out all viruses.” He proclaims that Tanzania is totally free of the virus and rebuffs recommendations from the international community. When health workers speak out on the spiralling infection rate, they – these health officials – are denigrated as being “bankrolled by imperialists.”
As the general election is just eight days away, I wish to call on President Magufuli to allow all the opposition parties to participate fully and not just given a tokenism approach to participation. Government officials have proclaimed at various fora that the president has to win because of his “power of incumbency.” This, to me, is a sure euphemism for “rigging of elections,” because there’s really no rule that a sitting president must win an election. In fact, examples abound where incumbent rulers have lost to opposing candidates: Joyce Banda who was the incumbent ruler of Malawi lost to opposition leader, Peter Mutharika in the general election of 2014; President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria lost to General Buhari, an opposing candidate in 2015; and Peter Mutharika himself, a sitting president lost to Lazarus Chakwera just recently in June. So, I cannot really decipher what the President’s henchmen have in mind in relation to this newfound ‘wonder’ word of theirs.
In all honesty, I do not think this election will be free and fair. The telltale signs are all there. Therefore, I call on the international community to keep an eye on this once lovely nation to ensure that the evil machination of the current regime is not brought to bear on the suffering Tanzanian citizens.
Martins Agbonlahor lives in Manchester.
Written By: Martins Agbonlahor