Monday, September 5, 2011
Letter From Butiama: The Uhuru Blockade
This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 30 July 2006.
*************************************************A few days ago and for the second year running, I found myself driving behind the motorcade of the Uhuru Torch on the Mwanza – Musoma road.
For those who have not had the privilege, or misfortune - it depends on your circumstances - of driving behind that motorcade, it contains several cars stretching for about a kilometre. The one I encountered had a three-car police escort. One of the police cars was driven on the right hand side, forcing on-coming traffic off the road.
It is the last motorcade you would want to meet if you are in a hurry. Apparently, motorists are not allowed to pass the motorcade and are constrained to trail for kilometres on end until the motorcade turns off the main road.
I was in a hurry to pick up a visitor at Mwanza Airport – or, at least, I thought I was. So I overtook two slower cars at the end of the motorcade, and was behind a pick-up truck when two of its passengers began to point at me with threatening gestures, warning me to not to overtake. For a while, we exchanged a few unfriendly universally recognized gestures in sign language but in the end, I obliged, although reluctantly.
Historically, the Uhuru Torch has been an important national symbol. At the eve of Tanganyika’s independence, it was carried up the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro as an icon that heralded a new era of self-determination for the people of a new nation. It was also meant to be a symbol of hope to encourage other Africans whose countries remained under colonial rule to intensify their independence struggles.
Although the Torch was historically linked to the ruling party’s predecessor, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), in the recent era of political pluralism the Uhuru Torch race was transformed from that political historical link and has adopted a national character, each year adopting a cause that transcends party politics.
Whether in the past or now, the Uhuru Torch Race still serves an important role. What is questionable is whether its motorcade should rule the roads and prevent others from going about confronting life's challenges.
It is true that we may assume we are in a hurry to get somewhere even when we are not, but there are genuine cases where the motorcade must give way. A car could be carrying a critically ill patient to hospital and those thirty-or-so minutes held up behind the motorcade could make the difference between life and death. There are far more private cars than ambulances carrying patients to hospital, a fact that may not be easily apparent to a police officer who has orders to block all traffic from passing through.
There was a bus behind my car, and it was possible it had passengers with onward connections to Shinyanga and beyond. We all know how a few minutes' delay can make a difference between succeeding in traveling from one place to another, and when one misses a connection because of the Torch, we can imagine how difficult it may entail meeting unexpected expenses.
Just as the objectives of the early Uhuru Torch Race have changed under the prevailing political system, so should other aspects of the Race. Recent times have brought great social and economic challenges that place significant pressure on the individual to survive and and contribute towards society. Some of those challenges, such as the prevalence of AIDS and HIV, are addressed by the Race each year. Other challenges are confronted daily by many Tanzanians.
It should be important to remove all possible obstacles to allow everyone to effectively meet those challenges. “I was held up by the Uhuru Torch”, should not prevail as an excuse.
For security reasons, I can understand why we should be held up by presidential and other VIP motorcades although I have to admit that sometimes one’s understanding of security precautions and one’s loyalty and fondness for one’s leaders can be subjected to some serious re-thinking when put through a test.
I was once on a bus from Dar es Salaam to Arusha that was stopped for more than four hours by Police at Segera for a president who was travelling on a section of that road.
I imagine the Police began blocking traffic even before the president got out of bed that morning.