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In search of ‘true north’ for Africa politics, media

It could not have happened at a better time and place for Tanzania, East, Central and Southern Africa, the Great Lakes Region, the Horn of Africa and even the Afro-Arab world.

As Africa warms up for the forthcoming electro season into the coming year, a Dar es Salaam-based global convention centre named after one of the continent’s great sons, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, hosted the launch of a book.

The book, “My Life, My Purpose: Tanzanian President Remembers”, a product of the county’s retired Third Phase President Benjamin William Mkapa, serves for more than memoirs of his childhood, education and one-decade (1995-2005) career path at the reins of political power in Tanzania.

 While incumbent Fifth Phase President, Dr. John Pombe Magufuli, was the Chief Guest, all surviving former presidents in the line were there to witness the Mkapa work of art. Thanks to his professional touch as a journalist.  

One wished more presidents from neighbouring East, Central, Southern and even the Afro-Arab country presidents could have been invited. Next time, maybe. This was a serious omission for the good of Africa.  

 “My Life, My Purpose: Tanzanian President Remembers”, is a character mould for anyone wanting to lead any country upholding provisions of the reigning constitution. “Looking at neighbouring countries,” Former President Mkapa says: “We have seen leaders trying to retain power beyond their allotted term.”

He questions: “If you have served well, yet choose to remain beyond your term, which results in a threat of unrest, why do you, as a leader, want to see violence erupt? Why spoil your record of leadership and create crisis. Why?”

As a career diplomat and story balancing journalist, he restricts his activity to the target area. He does not cross borders. He stays at home giving an example of Zanzibar when President Salmin Amour wanted to extend his term beyond the provisions of the constitution.

This made him (Mkapa) as president feel “very tense” because it could only have been “catastrophic for Tanzania….I was determined not to have the constitution changed.”

He argues: “There must be a structure which can mitigate a president’s power, or at least provide for a time for a president to rethink.” He suggests: “Perhaps this is where a second parliamentary chamber could be useful” through offering “the opportunity for those who have had substantial experience to review bills …. (to) quietly warn of any potential for negative impact from a proposed bill.”

As a very important democratisation component, civil society organizations are called upon to come with “alternatives” rather than stick to “simplistic approach” which finds them spending too much time on making “overzealous criticism.”

Otherwise, “My Life, My Purpose: Tanzanian President Remembers confirms a quote from Emperor Titus address to the Roman Senate when he said: “Verba volant; scripta manent.” Literally put: “Words (the spoken) fly away; the written (words) remain.” In respect of the history of Tanzania’s Third Phase President Mkapa, there will be no need for archaeologists.

Ceteris paribus, at an output of 320 top quality pages in four years, covering a period of 82 years of his life means he was producing 80 pages a year, 6.6 pages per month or 0.22 pages a day. This indicates the level of concentration he assigned to this task. I know; he is a prolific writer. But on this project he chose to go “slow but sure” to the fulfillment of the Anglo-Saxon idiom.     

Maybe as a child of William, the Catechist, he might have heard of a quote from St. Vincent de Paul. That is: “If you must be in a hurry; then let it be according to the old adage, and hasten slowly.”

 If he did not access the words of this saint, we can still be happy with those of Kumail Najiani. Said he: “You can go slow(ly). Allow your dreams and goals to change, but live an intentional life.” This is where he reveals the short life he spent at a seminary. But then, out of the monastery walls and away from the oath of celibacy, he does not tell us why he made only two children.

 “My Life, My Purpose: Tanzanian President Remembers” has everything falling in the right place. Indeed, a life without purpose is not worth living. It is worth leaving.

He gives us not only the traditional two sides of the Benjamin Mkapa coin but also the third one – the spine, as they call it in the book industry. Rarely seen, this is the side which determines the real weight of the book, other things remaining equal.

We see the parent role in shaping his life. We trek his education. We mirror at links with his teacher and mentor, the late founder of the Nation, Julius Kambarage Nyerere. We accompany him several times to The Clinic. We read his concerns in public service. The rating is ours.     

 With tears shed on the walls of the Tanzania media houses, notebooks, cameras, laptops, and all the accompanying 21st century press options, and having worked with him, I also frankly felt very bad when I read him saying: “Frankly, I don’t like to interact with local media nowadays.”

Why? “Because so often, which was certainly not the case journalists conducted themselves when I worked in the media.” According to him, most of the news currently has no newsworthiness and is full of opinion.

He is right. From “Imperial” typewriters using the same Pitman keyboard, page dummies from subs, linotypes, proof-readers, paste-up personnel (mostly girls some of whom ended up being our wives), plate-makers and web offset operators, we produced something more professional than today. And we were in time. Dar es Salaam residents read tomorrow’s paper today.

We had the 5Ws + H story writing formula. Today, the Ws have become six. You write a story, fine. But “for whom” are you doing it? This is where opinions originate. And many times, they are pre-conceived or caused by just professional setbacks. 

These days we write: “Five-footer notorious Felix Kaiza has been arrested and is due to appear in court on theft charges.” Tomorrow’s story leads with the intro about the Seventh Commandment and runs under the “Kaiza arrested for stealing” headline.

Newspapers today no longer bear the editor’s face. They belong to the graphics people, who cannot be ethically held responsible. Proof- reading is by the automatic computer spell check command. So, the late President Aboud Jumbe appears as “About Jumbo” and the story rolls off the presses.

Former President Mkapa is correct when he says: “I believe in free media” for the development of democracy. But it is the same media addressing him as “Ex-President.” Isn’t it true that by the country’s constitution, unless otherwise, once a president, always a president? Is the media right when it takes “ex-“and “former” as words conveying the same meaning and bearing the same weight? 

Words constitute the journalists’ stock in trade. They cannot be used so freely. A lazy word is not a slip of a pen. Alright is not necessarily all right. At the same time, all right, in all ways, always remains the only acceptable form in edited writing. Training, training, training! 

Journalists in Tanzania, as is the case globally today, have come under the endangered species category, if I were allowed to borrow from the CITES language. They are now in for a special United Nations-assisted hazard App just like the Black rhino or the African elephant!

On the face value, all seems to be okay. But it is not. There is a lot of self-censorship. The media in Tanzania does not command the respect and trust of the past. Nor is it as safe as it was.  

 The book’s critical relevance cannot be overstated. It was sold out on the same day. Africa politics and media need a ‘true north’ for proper navigation.

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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