Do you sometimes feel, dear reader, that you are in the middle of a hostage situation in which you and your fellow captives know that you are in a bad way and there is nothing you can do about it because all the doors are locked and your hands and feet have been manacled?
If you do, then you are living in an African country governed the African way. The country probably has a constitution that says all the beautiful words that constitutions are meant to say, guaranteeing the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It probably also says that there will be periodic elections that shall be free, fair and transparent. It also establishes a number of grand-sounding institutions to enforce these rights, such as a talking shop called parliament, courts of law, an ombudsman and such like.
Indeed, every so many years you and your fellow captives troop out to vote for your preferred candidate and/or party, and at the end of the exercise, a government of sorts is formed and its head makes a grandiloquent statement reaffirming his commitment to the delivery of the goodies he promised during the campaign, the nation listens carefully and your hopes soar.
But before you grow old you realise you’ve been had. All the rhetoric, you learn, was just words, all the promises empty and all your hopes unfounded. You get to know why “politician” was, in Shakespearean parlance, used to denote a dishonest and dissembling character. You rue the day you went to vote, and may even swear never to vote again.
The hostage situation becomes more and more intractable when you realise that despite your realisation that all the literature about freedom and prosperity and all the declarations about service to the nation were traps with which to ensnare you, you cannot wiggle out of the bind you find yourselves in.
And, you may sometimes participate in your continued enslavement by siding with some of your kidnappers because they come from your tribe or profess the same superstition as yourself, and they probably told you it’s your turn to eat. Yet, if you looked closely you would find out that it’s the turn of the big man and his wife and children to eat while you of the tribe or faith make do with the crumbs off the high table. Tribal, religious and regional alliances are ploys used by cheats to fool the masses.
Often, while you lie on the floor blindfolded and bound hand and foot, you will hear bitter wrangling among the thieves fighting over your property, one claiming the television set, another the stereo system and a third the jewellery. You realise there is no honour among these thieves, and you are praying that they settle their differences quickly, take whatever they want and leave your house.
But they are not leaving in any hurry because another argument erupts as to whether they should kill you since you may be able to identify them, and you now know you are really in a bad way. Well, they do not exactly kill you but they do not leave either. They remain and make your home theirs, and you remain seriously handicapped because you are still bound, blindfolded and maybe gagged as well.
This is the situation in which many African countries find themselves in, being governed for the most part by conspiracies that came into power riding on a wave of popular support, with the enthusiastic hope among the populace that the deprivations of the outgoing regime were a thing of the past. Soon, the past becomes the present as well as the future.
We are saddled with thieving scoundrels that we apparently cannot get rid of, and we helplessly listen to them haggling over our property as they demand fairness in the sharing of the loot. And even if they untie you and say you are free to leave, it’s like in the old Eagles’ song, Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”
Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political commentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: email@example.com