Tanzanian Saints on the March!

Tanzanian Saints on the March!

While the political focus in East Africa has been on Kenya’s very public troubles, a much more sinister situation is actually emerging in Tanzania.

Wednesday morning Tanzanian special police arrested Christopher Mtikila, a conservative Christian theologian, very public human rights activist, and unfortunately, a real righty politician who until now had little viable support.

Reverand Politican arrested in Dar.
Last year the Tanzanian government legitimized his political movement, the Democratic Party of Tanzania (DPT), by registering it as an official opposition that could stand for national elections this fall.

I guess they had second thoughts… twice. “Special police” arrived at Mtikila’s house at 7am Wednesday, and knocked politely at the door. His wife wouldn’t let them in, so they left. A little bit more than an hour later they returned with vengeance.

For three hours they ransacked his apartment, finally leaving with his computer. The affair has transformed a fringe politician into a national hero.

Trapped in the same dynamic that indecisive and oppressive regimes from Nixon to Mao found themselves in, the Tanzanians in power have now elevated a fringe movement to substantial prominence that risks shaking the country to its core.

From a distance Tanzanian politics has looked honky-dory. It’s one of the few countries in Africa where the country’s presidents (following the first, Julius Nyerere) never served more than two publicly elected terms. The transitions have always been peaceful.

But beneath this veneer of peaceful democracy is strict one-party control. Nyerere established the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) as the single political entity in the country. After the political collapse of the Cold War, CCM relented somewhat allowing ineffective opposition parties that never garnered much public support, but CCM always was — and still is — in complete charge.

Public presidents are beholding to retired presidents sitting quietly in the “presidium.” Like in China, age is power.

I’ve often wondered if savvy Americans like Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright really understood all this, and just didn’t let on. I’ve often wondered myself if this kind of top-down, near oppressive control is what emerging African democracies need. To a certain extent, it’s the (public) argument now going on in Kenya regarding their new constitution.

But it’s all coming apart now in Tanzania. The last thing Tanzania needs is a Newt Gingrich hero, but that’s what the indecisive Tanzanians-in-power have created with Rev. Christopher Mtikila.

Mtikila has been around for a very long time, sort of the Mike Huckabee of Tanzania. Born again apostolic, he’s campaigned tirelessly against the “unchristian” ways of the closely-held Tanzanian government. His views are not comfortable to most moderates. He’d like gays hanged and Sunday made a non-workday public holiday. He calls non-Christians “traitors.” Jailed more than two dozen times since the early 1970s.

Why on earth did the current Tanzanian regime suddenly legitimize him?

Times are changing. And for the better. I think the answer lies in Kenya, where real democracy is exploding through the streets. The internet, cell phones, blogs – you name it – young East Africans are on the march for greater transparency and democracy.

Kenya is handling it well. Tanzania has a lot to learn. And if it doesn’t soon, it may find that it’s oppressive politics flip from one heavy hand to another just as heavy, and maybe even less rational.