Dar es Salaam. When a group of trainee teachers at a school in Mbeya savaged a hapless student in a typical Hollywood gangster style last week, the outrage was palpable.
It wasn’t just the public that rushed to condemn the senseless battering of the student, within hours, regional authorities and cabinet ministers also chipped in. And within hours the, the government reacted by firing the ‘mafia’ trainee teachers. Interestingly, all it took was a video clip of the shocking incident that went viral on various social media platforms.
Once again, the new reality of the digital age manifested itself: the choice of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and various other online platforms to expose a shameful event that only a few years ago would have arguably come and gone without much noise was yet another reflection of just how much social media has shaken up this nation.
In recent months, social media has proven to be a potent force in exposing major cases of human rights abuse and assaults across the country. Tanzanian ‘netizens’ (users of the Internet, especially habitual or avid ones) are using online platforms to instantly post material that’s in the public interest and in the process influence major decisions by the authorities.
Various video clips and pictures on social media have recently been triggering critical and timely interventions by the government in a manner that has served to buttress the place and role of social media users in governance.
As anger spread on social media in reaction to the battering of the Mbeya Day Secondary School student on Thursday, Home Affairs minister Mwigulu Nchemba was the first cabinet minister to act by ordering the Mbeya Regional Police Commander to carry out preliminary investigations into the incident. His orders were swiftly performed. Before that, the minister had responded through his Twitter account, appealing for calm as he sorted out the matter with the relevant law enforcement organs.
Shortly afterwards, Education minister Joyce Ndalichako announced the dismissal of the ‘mafia’ teachers. In 24 hours, the Mbeya video, lasting only 30 seconds, had triggered emotional condemnation far and wide and jolted cabinet ministers, the police and Mbeya Regional authorities into swift action.
In her statement, Prof Ndalichako noted that “...the trainee teachers lost the legitimacy to continue pursuing a career in education.”
That was not all. Before nightfall, two other steps had been taken - the school’s head teacher, Ms Magreth Haule, had been demoted through a direct order from the Minister in the President’s Office (Regional Adminsitration and Local Authorities, Mr George Simbachawene.
There had been efforts to discredit the video clip with some reports that the student at the centre of the storm was not real -- but an impostor. The RC’s investigations proved otherwise.
And just recently, the police moved in to arrest ‘Scorpion the gouger’ after his alleged brutal attack on Said Ally in Buguruni, Dar es Salaam, went viral. The nation is yet to come to terms with the incident.
In April this year, the police in Morogoro also acted on a shocking rape incident that had gone viral on various social media platforms to arrest suspects who were recorded allegedly taking turns to sexually abuse a woman at a guest house.
Morogoro Regional Police Commander Ulrich Matei told The Citizen on the day the incident was reported that the suspects were arrested after the video went viral on social media. Tanzanian ‘netizens’ had reacted angrily.
One senior cabinet official who also took to social media to condemn the alleged raping of the woman was Health minister Ummy Mwalimu, who used her Facebook account to announce that she had asked her then Home Affairs counterpart Charles Kitwanga and the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ernest Mangu, to act on the brutality.
“I strongly condemn those who committed this crime, it’s very inhuman. It’s an embarrassment that we should not tolerate,” Ms Mwalimu wrote on her Facebook page. The minister, however, betrayed the love-hate relationship between Tanzania’s social media users and powers that be, who in a way still look at ‘netizens’ as loose cannons posing a security threat.
In her Facebook statement, Ms Mwalimu tried a long shot in a passionate appeal to social media users to stop spreading the video any further. It was possibly due to her fears over the potential image damaging nature of the content.
And recently, President John Magufuli took a swipe at social media users who were critical of the two new aircraft, the Canadian Bombardier Q400, that the government acquired for the troubled national carrier. At an event to commission the new airliners in Dar es Salaam, the President said: “I wish angels could come down and switch off all social media platforms for at least one year, and re-open them after the country has made developmental milestones.”
As expected, that sparked a response from social media users.
In her appeal to the President, the chairperson of an online social movement, ChangeTanzania, Ms Maria Sarungi, wrote on Twitter: “Your excellence, social media also contributes greatly to development, there is no need of shutting it down.” Tanzanian social media activists are worried that the government’s unwillingness to fully embrace social media may prove counterproductive.