Thursday, February 19, 2015

Publicity and January's Quest for the Presidency

Publicity and January Makamba’s Quest for the Presidency

Chambi Chachage

What happens to the populace when our bright and brightest do your political bidding? Who can stop a politician who has mastered the art of political performance? When he runs for the presidency would any critical analysis make sense for the citizenry basking in his brand? Why, in fact, should we analyze him critically?

January Makamba’s quest for the presidency is indeed an exercise in the mastery of image building. After my lengthy critique of his conversation with Padre Privatus Karugendo that has been published as a book, I followed closely its publicity in the social media. What struck me was the extent to which socialites and other superstars have been branding its form without a serious public engagement with its contents.

It was thus interesting to receive in my inbox (yesterday) Ben Taylor’s analysis on Can January Makamba Be the Next President of Tanzania?. Famously known as @mtega among the ‘twitterati’ in the blogosphere, Taylor makes this observation after noting that in 2010 the Economist, a magazine that Tanzanian business and political elites pay attention to, published a “surprisingly uncritical interview” with January: “Fast-forward five years and Makamba now aspires to become Tanzania’s next president. And with the same charm and media-savvy that won over the Economists writer, he has risen from a rank outsider a few months ago to become a plausible candidate”.

The keyword is “media-savvy”. And as we now know, there is this thing called ‘social media’ with its blogs, listservs twitter, whatsapp and facebook. So we are also talking here of  ‘social media-savvy’.

No wonder yesterday we also received January’s letter via an email to Wanazuoni’s listserv. He wrote it – in his then capacity as the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Minerals – to the then newly appointed Minister of Energy and Minerals in 2011. Why is it about to go ‘viral’ now in 2015?

In a way it is a response to those of us who have been questioning his role, if any, in fighting grand corruption. This is a difficult critique to respond to no wonder even the sympathetic Taylor has this to say in his analysis of the recently-launched book on January: “But it’s easy to be tough in general terms, and anyone reading this book hoping to get Makambas views on specific past corruption scandals - Escrow, EPA, Richmond or the BAE radar - will be disappointed. I wasnt expecting any different….”

Yet the social media-savvy politician is relentlessly branding himself as the brand new hope for/of Tanzanian youth. And Taylor seemingly agrees when he says: “Makamba is arguably the best-placed CCM candidate to draw younger voters away from opposition parties, particularly Chadema, and back to CCM.  Besides his youth, he is relatively untainted by the corruption scandals of recent years and has avoided the worst excesses of CCM factionalism. He would probably deliver the party a bigger victory than any of the other likely CCM aspirants”. 

His apparent political ally in rallying the youth in(to) politics, Zitto Kabwe, who appears together with him in the last photograph in his recently launched book, wrote this ‘endorsement’ in 2010: “The constitution of Tanzania requires one to be 40 years old (not 45) and above to qualify for President. My friend January will be 41 in 2015… January is one of the brightest people I have ever met. According to information online he went to St. John's University, a Catholic university in Minnesota. A top school as far as I can gather….”

Such is the image that has been publicized over the last five years. In the spirit of building this image in July 29, 2013 January wrote about his Life and Times in the Presidency: The Teleprompter Magic. Therein we see the making of presidential campaigner portrayed as a brilliant political strategist. Earlier, in July 25, 2013, the facebook-savvy diplomat wrote this portrayal that numbed the nerves of those who questions his inexperience and massaged the ego of the incumbent President who partly holds the keys to the post-2015 presidency: “Lesson: diplomacy is tough and as President you have to be on top of the game. In my time working for President Kikwete I was amazed everyday at how good a diplomat he is”.

In July 27, 2013 he also wrote in his blog about his ‘experience with the presidency’, thus showcasing his apparent ‘influence’: “I was fortunate that President Kikwete is very open-minded. But you will have to be very well prepared to defend your arguments, as he will challenge you – sometimes with angles you hadn’t seen or facts you hadn’t considered. If you withstand the challenge, he will take your views on board.”

My attempt at writing a satire about January’s campaign for a parliamentary seat in 2010 failed miserably as the majority of its readers interpreted it as a praise song thus missing the motive of its writer. It has this line that probably captures the essence of this brief analysis – the need to look beyond the brand: “But it is not only this ‘youth power’ that is behind the rise of January Makamba. One only has to watch the video clip ( to understand what kind of force was and is behind his stride. Here is a master strategist who knows the role of the power of performance in politics in this ICT age.” Now imagine when such a performer is the Deputy Minister responsible for communication in the country. 

Ironically, the name of the month of January is derived from Janus, the double-faced Roman god. He had one head/face looking back and another looking forward. By way of analogy, this could help us with a methodology of analyzing a brand that has become so ubiquitous to the extent that it has the potential of hypnotizing/duping/hoodwink us. What we need is to look back and forward closely and simultaneously, that is, critically.

Being ‘part and parcel’ of the CCM’s presidential campaign team in 2005, January learned from ‘the best’. By that I mean the best in ‘political machination’ that was dubbed ‘mtandao’ i.e. ‘web/network’. But some may say, ‘oh boy, he is his own man now’ yet one shudders at the thought of a ‘back to the future’ déjà vu.

That is the eerie feeling I got when I read this from a potential young voter: “I mean I am really rooting for January and if he does get the presidential ticket to run I hope I will not be voting for him because of his charisma and good looks (we did that 2005 and 2010 and look how great that worked out :-)”.

January is over. October is around the corner. May we probe and vote with both our emotional hearts and rational minds. Amen.


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