Saturday, 31 January 2015 09:39

Beating the Drum on One Side: Confusing the People on Both Sides

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The volume of historic detail in Mohamed Said’s paper, Tanzania: A Country without Heroes,is impressive. Little of this information is known. He makes a persuasive case that numerous individuals who made critical contributions in the anti-colonial struggle in Tanzania are either only partly acknowledged or completely suppressed in the official, popular and even scholarly discourse.
The October-2013 media stories around the 14th anniversary of the death of Mwalimu Nyerere exemplify that distortion of history. The overall theme was that he was not only the principal leader of the struggle for Uhuru but also the sole architect of the ensuing developments. A balanced, factually sound, critical perspective was all but absent.

I concur that the written history of Tanzania contains significant omissions. That must be rectified. All our heroes deserve due publicity. Said focuses on Muslims, but others have been side-lined too. Our children need a valid account of the path our nation has travelled. By marshalling an array of facts and utilizing key premises, Said draws conclusions of profound implication for our future. Thus, his paper needs a thorough evaluation. I defer assessment of the details to historians. Instead, I assess the premises and conceptual process that generate his conclusions. I delve on methodology because

  1.  the mode of reasoning he employs is commonplace today;
  2. it also appears in race or gender themed papers;
  3.  his opponents use it too; and
  4. an evaluation of this style of analysis is not only not undertaken but the necessity of doing it is also not appreciated. A flawed methodology compromises the validity of the conclusions drawn.

My local illustrations are restricted to mainland Tanzania. That, however, does not affect the essence of my case.

The Premises and Conclusions

A premise is an assertion that provides a framework for an argument. Invoked without evidence, it is deemed an obvious truth. Every writer utilizes a premise, yet, not all premises hold true. Commonly deployed premises are often flawed; at times, they are fatally flawed.
We obtain a valid conclusion when coherent premisesare augmented with reliable evidence, and the case is constructed in a logical manner. When the premises are flawed or inconsistent, the evidence is shaky or incomplete, and the logic applied is dubious, the conclusions drawn become invalid. In practice, the latter scenario is more common than the former one.

First, I state five premises I have extracted from Said’s paper; some are given verbatim, and others are imputed or paraphrased.

  1. Authoritarian regimes generally distort national histories.
  2. History is made not by one hero, but by a diversity of heroes.
  3. Leaders in Africa fear heroes other than themselves.
  4. Religion is a primary driver of social change.
  5. Islam is a socially progressive religion while Christianity is not.

Second, I state the principal conclusions drawn by Said.

  1. Muslims, not Christians, liberated Tanzania from colonial rule.
  2. Muslim activists have been written out of the official history.
  3. The welfare of the Muslims in Tanzania has been sorely neglected.
  4. The religious divide propels the socio-political affairs in Tanzania.
  5. Muslims no longer love and respect Nyerere the way they did earlier.

Assessing the Premises

The USA is not deemed an authoritarian society. Yet, the official history, taught in schools, is not a balanced or accurate version of its known history. Shortcomings of officially sanctioned US history are amply documented in works such as Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, and James W Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Heroes who contributed significantly to the making of the nation are omitted or placed in a tiny footnote. Trade unionist, left wing, African American, Latino and Native American heroes in particular tend to suffer the silent treatment.

Leaders and establishment historians everywhere fear champions who stray far beyond the official line. It occurs in the history of science too. Take SofyaKovalevskaya, a gifted 19th century Russian woman. She was the first female recipient of a PhD in mathematics and the first woman Professor of Mathematics who made novel contributions to the discipline. She did all that in an era when women could not ordinarily join universities, let alone become professors. Moreover, she was a talented writer and an activist associated with groups fighting Tsarist rule in Russia. You would think that she is well known, at least among scientists, and her example held up to inspire girls. On the contrary, until very recently, standard mathematics history texts neglected her, distorted her achievements, or mentioned her in the margin.

Consider the civil rights movement in the US or the anti-colonial struggles in India. The official line as expressed in the main media portrays Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as their sole respective heroes. Yet, hundreds, if not thousands, made significant contributions to these struggles. Their names are rarely mentioned. Who in Africa knows Paul Robeson, a towering personality of the US civil rights movement, or Subash Chandra Bose, a giant of the Indian anti-colonial movement? The scant mention of such heroes in popular discourse resembles the neglect of the heroes of the struggle for Uhuru in Tanzania.

Serious distortions of history exist as much in the Western capitalist nations as elsewhere. To say this is not to justify the distortions in our country but to place them in a context and better understand their roots. As Marx put it, in a society divided by classes, the dominant ideas are those that promote the interests of the dominant class. That phenomenon is seen as much in Muslim nations of the Middle East as in Catholic nations of Latin America. It does not emanate from religion or Africa specific factors but from the nature of the structure of the society.

Said unreasonably emphasises one type of grievance in the anticolonial struggles. In truth, those struggles derived from many grievances. They included limited educational opportunities, exploitative trade practices, lack of representation in political decision making, denial of civil service jobs and business licenses, unfair pay schemes and taxation, land appropriation, persistent poverty, preferences granted to Asians, and cultural domination. Religion based grievances were a marginal factor in this equation.

As Said points out, the colonial rulers used religion to divide the people, and weaken the anti-colonial movement. To an extent, they succeeded. But for the most part, the movement focused on redressing the unjust conditions of life and attainment of the right to national self-determination. While they had their differences, Muslims, Christians and others were united, more so than in most African nations, in their opposition to colonial rule. Said hardly mentions issues that united them but unduly stresses the division between them.

The histories of nations tell us that religion and religion based movements play a complex role in the process of social and political change. In places, the role has been progressive. Elsewhere, it has been socially retrogressive. Segments of the same religious establishment have been pitted against each other. In Apartheid South Africa or the American South, Christianity was used both to justify racism and to challenge it. Liberation theology in Latin America pitted lower level Catholic clergy against the Vatican. Similar things occurred in relation to Islam, Hinduism, or Budhism in other places. Such complexity is apparent in Tanzanian history, in a manner that is absent from Said’s thesis.

Said implies that Muslims were at the forefront of the Mau Mau uprising against German rule. But he fails to note that the Germans used Kiswahili, and for a time, the Arabic script, to administer the colony. That was strongly opposed by Christian missionaries. The German colonial authorities utilized the existing Madrasa system to recruit low-level clerks. Conversion to Islam rose during that era, and brought a portion of the Muslim clergy closer to the rulers. Using the form of reasoning applied by Said to Christianity under the British rule, one can say that Islam was closely allied with colonialism in that era. In truth, those associations did not emanate from the nature of these religions; they reflected the particularities of the historic eras.

Other examples demonstrating the flawed character of the assumptions implicit in Said’s paper can also be given. However, those I have stated above suffice to make the point.

Simplistic premises facilitate the drawing of erroneous conclusions from limited and selective information. The conclusions in Said’s paper have the potential to breed animosity between large groups of people. The premises upon which theyrest hence need to be articulated with clarity, and subjected to rigorous inquiry.

Assessing the Conclusions

People, not heroes –- one or one hundred –- make history. People resist an oppressive social order in scores of ways, on a daily basis, by means large and small, direct and indirect. They create a momentum from which a leader emerges. If leaders develop organic ties with the people, sense their feelings, resonate their demands, and fight for them ceaselessly and with valour and honour, we call them heroes. At times, they succeed, if only partially, in advancing the cause. At times, they fail drastically. It is not the outcome that marks heroic persons but the dedication, determination and skill with which they conduct themselves. Heroes or villains are not entities unto themselves, but function in relation to the people, time period, and context from which they emerge.

The claim that Muslims, not Christians, liberated Tanzania from colonial rule must be viewed from the grassroots perspective, and not purely at the level of the elites, leaders, or heroes. Even a cursory reading of history shows that the struggle for Uhuru was a popular nationwide phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in all parts of the nation, and from diverse religious, cultural backgrounds, valiantly participated in it. At the societal level, Said’s claim is patently false. TANU had many Muslim, Christian and other faith members. Said further undermines his claims by failing to acknowledge anti-colonial organizations like the Meru Citizens Union, the Chagga Democratic Party, and the Sukumaland Federal Council.
Mwalimu Nyerere received broad backing in all the areas. No data document significant religious preferences in that respect. At the time of Uhuru, he was a man of the people among all the principal religious faiths of the nation.

Yet, there were substantial differences within the leadership of TANU and between TANU and the ANC, the other political party. They centred around matters of race, citizenship and Africanization. Many leaders, groups and popular sentiment favoured rapid Africanization, militant confrontation with the colonialists, and denial of citizenship to the Asian minority which had mostly allied itself with the colonizers or stood as onlookers. Trade union activists, Muslims and Christians, supported such moves. Mwalimu was one of the few who openly advocated for extension of citizenship rights to all residents, equal treatment of all citizens, and a measured strategy to achieve Independence. His popularity and eloquence carried the day, among political activists and the populace at large.

A vocal minority of activists continued to oppose him even after colonial rule ended. Those fissures figured prominently in subsequent political conflicts, the harsh steps taken by the new government against dissidents, the army mutiny, and the demise of independent trade unionism. All chiefs, Muslim or not, lost their authority. All private secondary schools, whatever their religious affiliation, were taken over. Contrary to the picture painted by Said, religion as such was not the sole or even a major driving force in Tanzanian politics.
American leaders had a falling out with each other after evicting the British; the French republicans went at each other’s throats after ousting the monarchy; the Russian revolutionaries did so after removing the Tsar; and Nelson Mandela had major differences with former allies after Apartheid ended. Likewise, Mwalimu fell out with his erstwhile allies after Uhuru. In each case, concrete, on the ground factors led to the divisions. Religion played, if at all, a small and symbolic part.

To depict religion as the key factor in Tanzanian politics is to obfuscate reality. And to do so in a static manner as done by Said is to further muddy the waters. If it is true that Mwalimu was and remained the political progeny of the Catholic church, then how do you explain the fact that during the Ujamaa era, that very church strongly and persistently opposed his policy, painted it as godless communism and mobilized against him in the parishes? The intensity and unyielding nature of that opposition are well documented in Lawrence EY Mbogoni’s, The Cross and the Crescent: Religion and Politics in Tanzania from the 1880s to the 1990s, (MkukinaNyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam, 2004). Interestingly the Catholics who now seek to beatify Mwalimu have also conveniently forgotten this crucial episode of history. 

At the grassroots level, more issues unite Muslims and Christians than divide them. In the forced villagization program of the 1970s, Muslims suffered as much as the Christians. No religion based preference operated during the hard economic times of the eighties. The neo-liberal policies of privatization and introduction of user fees for public services; the emergence of a political class consumed by greed; the current chaos in the health, education and public service sectors do not favour this or that religion. Tanzanians of low financial standing, the vast majority, suffer the consequences, irrespective of where they say their prayers. If foreign investors extract valuable resources from our soil without due compensation, bribe local politicians to secure an unfair contract, pay abysmal wages to workers in the high profit tourist and mining sectors, people of all denominations bear the brunt.
The elites, for their part, are united in terms of maximizing expropriations of the public purse. The Muslim boss or tajiri at the top is as corrupt, greedy and societally irresponsible as the Christian boss or tajiri at the top. That is the reality of our times.

On History

The history I was taught in school during the colonial era was a history of heroes - Lord Nelson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, David Livingstone – their heroes. I did not learn about Shaka the Zulu or Chief Mkwawa. It was a biased, incomplete, Eurocentric rendition of history.
After Uhuru, that curriculum had to change. It was a tall order for a new nation without a university, professional historian, or a tradition of historical research and with only a score or so persons with a relevant first degree. Yet, it rose to the challenge. After a decade and a half, the History Department of the University of Dar es Salaam was one of the top, if not the top, history department in Africa. It was graduating about thirty well qualified history teachers and awarding five or so masters degrees annually. It produced path breaking research and globally acclaimed publications on diverse aspects of Tanzanian and African history. Both local and expatriate historians made the mark. The list is too big; so I note just one: Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Tanzania Publishing House, Dar es Salaam, 1972) remains a standard textbook in African history courses in universities across the world.

The output of that department was more remarkable in that a good portion embodied methodological innovations. History was no longer a series of events occurring at points in time and where the action of a hero or villain was the centrepiece. Rather, it was a cohesive, interdisciplinary, dynamic depiction of human society. Carefully gathered data were applied to embed heroes, villains, social groups and common people within a unified socio-economic perspective. This was done in the realization that generalizing from events at the level of elites or heroes to the population at large is a faulty logical device that distorts the elucidation of history.

What was produced at the university came to affect school curricula and the official story. By 1975, the history taught in the schools in Tanzania stood head and shoulders above what we received during colonial times. It was a fairly balanced, accurate, Africa-centred rendition of history. There remained much to be done. Biases and omissions remained. Nevertheless, the reorientation of the curriculum was a major achievement that should not be belittled.
As I said earlier, I concur with Said’s claim of biases in our official history. But by failing to place this incontext, his claim sounds extreme, and appears to demand a total rewrite of the official history.

There is a caveat: 2013 is not 1975; the once stellar History Department is a shadow of itself. It has forgotten its own history. Its present day graduates generally have a shallow knowledge of the Tanzanian, African and global histories. It has resumed the fragmented modality of conceptualizing history. Our academics seek donor dollars; students swim in muddy waters; and the teaching of history in schools faces major problems. The eclectic, selective, hero-based presentation of history found in Said’s paper fits well into that scene of intellectual retrogression.

Said does the nation a service by noting the neglect or destruction of historic archives, vehicles and buildings. But his examples create the impression that religion is the primary factor underlying the neglect. That is not so. Despite recent outward renovations, our museums and archives remain in a pathetic state. Not taking appropriate care of historic things is anationwide scandal. Selective examples convert the truths in Said’s paper into half-truths.

Sound and Unsound Logic

Differences between Muslims and Christians in educational attainment and higher level jobs existed in 1961,and still persist. So do differences between males and females, between regions and between races. But they are often portrayed in a skewed manner. I describe such misinterpretations by using a numeric, hypothetical example that will clarify my mode of reasoning andillustrate the irrational logic interweaved in Said’s analysis.

Hypothetical Secondary School Enrolment Data At Uhuru – 1961

  At Uhuru – 1961
In School Muslim Christian Total
Yes 200 (1%) 800 (4%) 1000% (2.5)
No 19,800 (99%) 19,200 (96%) 39,000 (97.5%)
Total 20,000 (100%) 20,000 (100%) 40,000 (100%)
  A Decade Later – 1971
Yes 4,000 (13%) 6,000 (20%) 10,000 (17%)
No 26,000 (87%) 24,000 (80%) 50,000 (83%)
Total 30,000 (100%) 30,000 (100%) 60,000 (100%)

This table shows hypothetical secondary school enrolment by religion at two time points, Uhuru and ten years later. Four people interpreted the data.

Muslim Zealot: There is no equality ten years after Uhuru. Christians occupy 60% of the school places. We still face discrimination. The Christia dominated government is against us.

Christian Zealot: Why are the Muslims making a fuss? After all, we used to have 80% of the school places. That was the result of our own effort to build schools. The government took away our schools and gave Muslims a chance. Why do they not build schools of their own?

Racist Cynic: In 1961, 39,000 children were not in school. Ten years later, 50,000 children are not in school! Africans cannot rule themselves; colonialism was better.

Secular Analyst: In 1961, 99% of the Muslim and 96% of the Christian children did not go to school. Overall, only 2.5% were in school. Ten years later, school enrolment rate was about 17%. Among Muslims, it went up thirteen times, from 1% to 13%. Among Christians, it went up five times, from 4% to 20%. What the colonialists could not do in fifty years, we did in ten years. The Muslim to Christian ratio improved from 1:4 earlier to 2:3 in 1971. But there is no room for complacency. The pace of change is slow. Eighty three percent of our children still do not attend school, and the Muslim/Christian gap has to be eliminated. Educational quality and relevance need attention as well.

The two zealots looked only at those attending school and forgot those not in school. That is an elitist mode of analysis, akin to interpreting history solely in terms of heroes. The cynic used raw numbers to state a preconceived case and forgot that the school age population had gone up by 50%. All the three failed to examine the trend or place issues in perspective. Each used the data and cited external information selectively to further a narrow agenda.
Say, a Christian zealot notes that three of the four super multimillionaires in Tanzania are Muslims. He then claims that Muslims dominate the nation’s economy. Is it a valid claim? According to Said’s logic, it is.

A myopic, single issue oriented, selective approach can generate conclusions that stray far from reality and reinforce dogma.
The analyst adopted a comprehensive, fair and dynamic approach to draw her conclusions, and raised relevant issues. Key societal differences do exist, and must be acknowledged. But they must be probed scientifically. Only then can we formulate sound policies to iron them out.

A Question of Ethics

I was intrigued by the notion of ``Muslim blood” in the second paragraph of Said’s essay. Is there a biochemical test to differentiate Muslim blood from other blood? Not so, blood is blood. In biologic and ethically acceptable terms, there is only human blood.
Such terminology reminds me of the Zionists who justify their oppression of the Palestinian people by pointing to unforgivable crime of spilling ``Jewish blood” and the Nazi discourse on the purity of the Aryan race. It brands one group of humans superior to others. Such talk justified colonial rule. It is a way of thinking that our people fought against, under the leadership of Mwalimu, more than five decades ago. It is sad to see this mode of thought re-enter our social discourse.

Final Words

The colonialists said that Africans were incapable of doing anything well, and instituted practices to divide us along narrow lines. Today, our own scholars use self-denigrating language that makes us appear incapable of solving our problems. Their grasp of global and local histories is poor. They cling to ways of thinking that serve to divide us. With eyes riveted on donor dollars, they perpetuate one-sided ideas with weak logical and factual bases. That is neo-colonialism in practice. Imperialism no longer has to send soldiers to police us; our own politicians and intellectuals facilitate the task. I count Said’s narrowly conceived paper as among those that effectively serve such a purpose.

Consider the aftermath of the year 2008 elections in Kenya. From the initial reports, it was evident that Kenyans across the nation had united to eject those identified with the status quo and elect new faces. But those in power could not accept it. Incidents of ethnic strife were apparently instigated. The media, especially the esteemed international outlets, fanned the flames by posing issues in pure ethnic terms. Things went out of control. Ultimately, the people, of all ethnicities, lost out. The investors and bwana wakubwas went on with the pillage of the nation.
If our primary attention is on what divides us, we cannot form the united, organized and strategically astute front needed to effectively put our nation on a path that serves all the people.

Said depicts Tanzania as a land of heroes, not of people; he writes as if the global and historic contexts are irrelevant; as if issues other than religion do not exist. His terminology is ethically wanting. His persistent one-sided drumbeat mystifies people on all sides. His paperdoes not provide a rational interpretation of reality that can form the basis for unity or progress.

It is because he considers religion the only material issue that he can utter a statement like ``Respect and love which Muslims once had for Nyerere has been completely wiped out.” If there is one thing that unites Tanzanians across the board today, it is the revulsion they feel towards the current crop of corrupt politicians, be they Muslim or Christian. They fondly look back to the days of Julius Nyerere. Despite his faults, they continue to hold him in high esteem. When they see the callous treatment the ordinary person gets today, they consider Nyerere a noble giant, a simple man of principles who was dedicated to his people. This view prevails as much among Muslims as Christians.

Said’s erroneously generalizes from the feelings of politically vocal elements to the views of the common man. His concession that once upon a time, Muslims did respect and love Nyerere contradicts what he says elsewhere. The vocal elements proclaim that Nyerere was always anti-Muslim; that he was always a faithful Catholic. They stick to this song no matter the facts. The Muslim and Christians zealots interpret him in purely religious terms. In the process, neither serves the common good.

Despite everything, I hold that Said has every right to his views, and to get a public hearing. But until he makes a case based on sound premises, reliable and comprehensive grass-roots level evidence, valid logic, and acceptable ethics, we cannot take his claims seriously. Those who speak on behalf of Muslim, Christian or other communities need to bear that in mind. Theyneed to realise that a series of half-truths masked as scholarship has lower moral standing than an outright lie. It has a greater capacity to deceive. Even an educated person may be confounded by the details in Said’s paper. The footnotes convey the impression of erudition. Yet, the foundation is hollow, the evidence one-sided, and the claims, wanting. People fromall sides argue in this style, which, in the long run, just produces mystification. Members of any creed do themselves a disservice by according high regard to voices presenting such selective, semi-factual, biased perspectives.

African scholars, including Said, must foremost bear in mind that ``virtue is not the monopoly of one faith, nor vice the monopoly of the other” (Mbogoni 2004). Instead of always beating the drum on one side, they need to present balanced, factual, comprehensive and interdisciplinary analyses of the key problems affecting society. They should do so without fear or favour, and while espousing loyalty to all the people. Only then will they deserve our respect and accolades.

To conclude: Let us stress a fundamental fact: When the supplies of malaria drugs for public health facilities are stolen, when bed nets are not well distributed, when health centres lack staff, when villages do not have clean water, when a public school has only one teacher, when public funds are pocketed by businessmen and officials, the ordinary Muslim child suffers as much as the ordinary Christian child. There is no religious discrimination here.
If we simply focus on an issue that divides us, whatever it maybe, and make mountains out of molehills in the process, how can we come together, as we must, to change our reality and fight for the dignity, rights and well-being of our children?

Karim Hirji is a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and a long-time writer on social, political and educational issues in Tanzania.

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