Wednesday, November 7, 2018

TANZANIA MAY NOT BE A DICTATORSHIP BUT...

TANZANIA MAY NOT BE A DICTATORSHIP, BUT HOMOPHOBES, SEXISTS AND MYSOGYNISTS ARE ENJOYING GREATER FREEDOM

Shangwe Muhidin

Recent political developments in Tanzania suggest that the revitalized debate on the state of politics in Tanzania is no longer on whether the country’s young democracy is in jeopardy but more if authoritarian tendencies of the current regime are justified. That was the takeaway from a conference held at the University of Dar es Salaam on November 1, 2018 in which President MagufulI attended as a “special participant,” according to organizers. The president wasted no time in warning that “democracy has limits.” 

It was a déjà vu for those in attendance. Last year, the president issued similar warnings, cautioning journalists that press freedom had its limits. “Not to that extent,” was the president’s uncompromising words shot to those who were dreaming of limitless freedom.

President Magufuli’s administration came at the backdrop of a public malaise resulting from his predecessor’s government. It almost made sense when, for instance, he and his supporters used the phrase kunyoosha nchi to justify any drastic measures his government took to rectify what we were now told were past mistakes. Kunyoosha nchi simply means to “straighten the country.” The country had maladministration wrinkles, it was about time someone ironed it.
 Even the most vocal in the call for a new constitution settled for this new buzz phrase: straightening before writing a new constitution. “This country needs constitutionalism, not a new constitution,” barked Humphrey Polepole who before his appointment as CCM’s Ideology and Publicity Secretary was the leading voice in the call for the new constitution. For a people that had lost hope in politics, let alone the government, this message resonated well.

However, this predisposition of those in power served as an automatic justification virtually for every decision made. In the name of straightening the country, public meetings by political parties have been banned, some artists have been banned/suspended or arrested for alleged indecency, and a good number of people are now facing sedition charges. Opposition politicians are crowding police cells accused of the most ridiculous of charges. 

In 2017, Godbless Lema, the Arusha Urban member of parliament spent four months behind bars after he was denied bail on several attempts. His crime? He had announced that, deep in his sleep, he dreamt of President Magufuli’s passing before 2020! Note that the next presidential elections will be held in that year. As I write this piece, Kigoma Urban Member of Parliament and a firebrand opposition figure, Zitto Kabwe, has just been released on bail after being remanded for ~48 hours on sedition charges. 
Much as it has been three difficult years for democracy enthusiasts in the country in general, those sympathetic of the regime, and still harbor egalitarian values in their consciousness are having it worse. Many times they have been compelled to come out to offer explanations even for matters which defy common-sense. Most of them feel they just have to defend the regime.

So, when President Magufuli warned alleged trouble makers in the Southern regions of Lindi and Mtwara that he would start dealing with them by beating up their aunts (shangazi, in Kiswahili), the ruling party’s women wing, UWT, rallied behind him saying the pronouncement was okay by any measure. It was after strong criticism by activists who had rightly pointed out the president’s statement was sexist and promoted violence against women, a common practice in our communities. I am not saying UWT is a democratic institution at heart, but one gets a feel of how far regime sycophants are ready to go to impress.

Similarly, when the president encouraged Dar es Salaam residents to give birth to as many children as they wished, the Health Minister, Ummy Mwalimu, felt the urge to explain; she insisted that family planning was still an official government policy and that the president was only joking! But no, the president has since repeated his call to ditch family planning, not once but twice, and the minister must have felt it is wise to duck the issue altogether. Perhaps aware that the president wasn’t joking, she has remained quiet. 

Such is the state of politics in the country. Fear. Uncertainty. Flattery. Silence. Etc.

Now, homosexuality has returned to Tanzanian public discourse after the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner (whom I will call City Governor for his domineering authority) announced a manhunt on gay people. It must be said that, despite a very strict legislation which makes homosexuality a crime, the government’s position on this issue has for a long time been not less than playing the proverbial ostrich. Bury the head in the sand and pretend it does not exist, act hastily and often clumsily when there is a trigger of the sort of the recent sextape. To put this into perspective, in 2016 it banned the sale of lubes in a bid to curb homosexuality!
What prompted this latest debate on homosexuality is a sextape involving a man and a woman engaging in the act of sodomy. Just to be clear here, what is in the video was not an act of homosexual sex. It was two heterosexuals indulging in their sexual escapades. But ours is a society that sniffs danger and act fast. The enemy was swiftly identified and the manhunt declared: apprehend all gay people. 

Typical of a patriarchal society, the young lady has become something of a public enemy while her male ‘partner in crime’ enjoys less scrutiny. Few even know his name. Indeed, the whole discourse on homosexuality only demonizes gay people and almost offers amnesty to bisexual or even straight men who sleep with them. In a show of masculine insecurity, female homosexuals/lesbians usually do not receive similar condemnation.

Nevertheless, it was time to get to work for the City Governor. He promptly requested the public to cooperate by texting him names of any gay person they knew. It’s not the smartest of methods but it’s not the first time he has used it. Last time seemed not so successful. He had urged the public to unfollow gay people on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook or face the wrath of the law. Nothing happened, at least in what is in the public knowledge. 
Perhaps more determined this time, he has announced to have received names of hundreds of suspects hours after his plea to the public. What happens remains to be seen but news of suspected gay people being physically attacked are beginning to emerge. A video showing a helpless young man being harassed by a group of people (men) has been circulating on social media. The harassers are heard threatening to apprehend and hand him over to authorities. 

The Governor’s antics are defining features of our current crop of politicians, one of which is their tireless attempts to impress their appointing powers (and to a lesser extent the public). Under pressure to deliver, they go out of their ways inventing roles beyond their job description. Pedestrian in their understanding of leadership, they have resorted to appealing to people’s moral values while the cities they govern have no public toilets! Their moral compass stubbornly revolves around Victorian morality, so much that the gulf between politics and religion is narrowing by day.
Few days after his declaration of the war against gay people, the Governor was seen attending a service in church, soaked in tears. He later explained that he was seeking divine intervention to get rid of this evil, adding that he had gone to the altars to repent on behalf of the city and its people. See, for the likes of the Governor, homosexuality is ungodly before it’s illegal; anyone in the fight against the evil becomes God’s foot soldier. It’s a holy war, too tempting to be ignored by, in most cases, men (not women) of God!

At the same time one rapper (stage name Dudubaya) who has no relevance in the current music scene has begun posting a series of videos and interviews in which he openly names people he accuses of being homosexual. He has quickly regained his lost fame for exaggerated ‘bravery.’ He speaks with confidence, pays no or little attention to the fact that false accusation can render him defamation charges. Such is the audacity of a homophobe in Tanzania. Following the infamous pardoning of two child rapists in December 2017 by the president, one would be forgiven to think that in this country it’s better to be a child molester than gay. Sad.

On the other hand, attacks on women are no longer isolated incidents in Tanzania. Consider this video here where a woman is physically assaulted by shameless men after being accused of prostitution and extortion. Her attackers have no shred of fear of breaking the law. Attacks on women are not necessarily physical. So, when the Unguja Magharibi police chief warned the public in May 2018 that making sexualized sounds such as whistling amounted to sexual harassment it was nothing than a source of ridicule on the internet as sexists and misogynists dismissively ridiculed the warning.

Not long ago, a hash tag #Umama dominated social media spaces in the country. Umama means motherhood or femininity, but here it is employed as a derogative term for men who “act like women”. Insult after insult, ridicule after ridicule, we were schooled how men ought to behave as men, and not, despicably, as women. It was an extension of hatred towards women on the one hand and stupid hyper-masculinity on the other. 
Motherhood, a symbol of life, care and love is now being presented as something shameful that “real men” should try to avoid. When taken to task, supporters of this assault hid behind the banner of utani (jokes), blatantly displaying their ignorance of psychological damage that such jokes may have on the self-esteem of those on the receiving end of it all, or on the minds of our young ones. They are reproducing patriarchal socialization.

The unintelligent Umama joke came as another equally foolish joke which pits the masculine men of rural and less urbanized places of the country against “men of Dar es Salaam” who are assumed to be less masculine and thus feminine, weak and bad. The latter are just too feminine for the former to stand: they are too emotional, they cry in public, they eat french fries (locally known as chips) instead of ugali, they watch romantic TV series instead of hyper-violent Hollywood movies, they do manicure and pedicure, and they even do massage! 

Tanzania is not an ideal democracy even by our African standards. But these tendencies of homophobia, sexism, and misogyny are now happening in the new age of the internet. More than ever we are able to read the minds of people on their posts. The keyboard is exposing the best and worst amongst us. 

At the same time the political leadership is not helping matters when it issues statements that either condone homophobia, sexism, and misogyny or are just indifferent. A wife beater must have found comfort in the president’s words that he would beat up our shangazi. When the president emphatically spoke against reintegration of pregnant school girls in the education system, he somehow promoted the tradition which condemned girl children as they are coming to terms with the dynamics of their biological makeup. When a government minister tweets derogative words such as machoko (faggots) to refer to homosexuals, homophobes are encouraged to victimize gay people. And when the political leadership remains tight-lipped when our mothers and sisters are harassed in the streets and on online spaces, it is the sexists and misogynists who are enjoying our freedom! 
They should not be allowed to. 

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