Dar es Salaam. For 55 years, it has gone around the country in a race named after it, the Uhuru Torch Race. Every year, the whole nation religiously rally behind the government in organising the event at the regional and council levels – symbolising freedom, hope and development.
It has also come to be a platform to raise awareness on the war on corruption, HIV/Aids, malaria, and drug abuse, especially among the youth.
But, the vision of the Father of the Nation, Julius Nyerere, notwithstanding, the Uhuru Torch Race has not been spared criticism over the years with the social media recently providing an even more convenient and wider platform for many who now question its relevancy in modern day Tanzania.
While in the past few years, the new attitude towards the Uhuru Torch Race has been more apparent than real, it loudly manifested itself last week after President John Magufuli ordered senior regional government officials to return a reported Sh1.2 billion in out-of-station allowances ahead of the climax of the race in Bariadi District, Siminyu Region.
And now critics of the race argue that despite the huge amounts of public funds spent on it, there is nothing much to show for the costs, except that it has, like many other annual state sponsored functions, been turned into a milking cow by corrupt senior government officials and their inner circle, especially at the regional levels.
If anything, President Magufuli confirmed the fears that have been in the public domain for a while – that the Uhuru Torch Race was fast degenerating into nothing more than a tradition whose essence was being undermined by a clique of public servants allegedly pocketing millions of shillings budgeted for the event.
Conveniently, the presidential order has been justified as part of the fifth phase government’s cost-cutting measures. But analysts have noted that there is more to the order to scale down on costs incurred in organising the event than meets the eye. After his shock decision to cancel Independence Day celebrations at the end of last year, it must have come as a little surprise that the Uhuru Torch Race is the last of President Magufuli’s concerns at the moment.
For many, it was a matter of time before the President wielded his axe on the event amid allegations that a significant number of government officials who were getting allowances together with their drivers and aides never attended the functions, especially at the regional levels.
Dr Emmanuel Mallya, head of the Department of Political Science and Governance at the Open University of Tanzania (OUT), told Political Platform that the Uhuru Torch celebrations needed a re-think considering the image battering it has suffered over the years.
“I do not believe it’s a wise idea to cancel the event from the calendar of national events, but clearly there is now need for a new approach,” says Dr Mallya, “A good starting point would be sensitising the younger generation through the social media on the essence of the event.”
However, he quickly dismisses the use of patriotism to justify the use of an estimated annual budget of Sh6 billion for the Uhuru Torch marathon across the country. “This (Sh6 billion) is a lot of money, we can think along organising the event in turns in each region.
“In any case, we cannot inculcate patriotism through the Uhuru Torch without an ethically strong leadership. We need the basics first, ethical, hard-working leaders and proper civic education in schools. These help ensure patriotism.”
Philosophy against a new attitude
The Uhuru Torch, which symbolises freedom and light, reflects the philosophy and vision of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere for an independent Tanganyika and Africa.
In 1961, a time when most of Africa was under the colonial yoke (with the exception of eight countries – Liberia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Ghana, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia), Nyerere addressed the Tanganyika Legislative Assembly and promised the following:
“We, the people of Tanganyika would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation.”
On that day – Tanganyika’s Independence Day – Lt Alex Nyirenda, with a commission from Nyerere’s newly-installed government, went up to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and with the new flag of the new nation fluttering proudly to his left, attached the Uhuru Torch to the flagpole to symbolically shine over the country and across its borders.
The Uhuru Torch has since become one of country’s national icons, which symbolises freedom, hope and development.
Yet it is this sense of nationalism that many now question – whether or not what began as Nyerere’s vision for the whole of Africa is still what it meant 55 years ago. There are concerns that there is everything wrong with the inheritors of the Uhuru Torch.
Dr Bashiru Ali, a lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), is one of the voices speaking for continuation of the Uhuru Torch in its original form and sense.
“It would be a bad thing for nationalism and for the courage and honour that is the Uhuru Torch to cancel such an important event just to please the ego of minorities who have no idea where it’s coming from,” he says.
He believes that the decision President Magufuli took last week to prevent unnecessary expenses that come with the celebrations does not necessarily mean he has ordered the cancellation of the race.
“He took the same measures to cut costs incurred in organising Independence Day celebrations last year, he chopped the budget for a party that had been organised for him by the National Assembly, but did that mean he cancelled the events?”
“Admittedly, there are officials diverting funds meant for these functions and all the President is doing is reining in on them. I believe the Torch is still as important as ever in promoting nationalism and enhancing rural development,” he says. But Dr Bashiru is quick to point out that Tanzania has suffered a decline in the level of patriotism and commitment. “Still, we are not saying let’s do away with the Uhuru Torch race – the point is let’s put our heads together to find a better way of rekindling the fire it used to be.”
Budget and outcome
Hundreds of millions of shillings are spent annually in organising the passage of the Uhuru Torch in all regions across the country.
While the exact figures for this year’s event are scarcely available, there are reports that at least Sh1.2 billion was saved after the President’s intervention to stop senior government officials from travelling to the venue of the celebrations in Bariadi District.
That money had been claimed by senior officials, including administrative secretaries, directors, council chairmen and mayors from 30 regions, 161 districts as out-of-station allowances covering travel, food, accommodation and related costs.